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Rutland's People from 
Roman Occupation to the Present 



The Offshore 

England's People from 
Roman Occupation to the Present 


New York Chicago San Francisco 

* Lords and Commons of England - Consider what 
nation it is whereof you are and of which you are the 
governors : a nation not slow and dull, but of quick, in- 
genious and piercing spirit; acute to invent, subtile 
and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any 
point that human capacity can soar to/ 

JOHN MILTON: Areopagitica 




Part 2 UNITY, STABILITY, CONTINUITY [600-1154] 33 

Part 3 'THIS REALM is AN EMPIRE' [1154-1603] 81 

Part 4 THE CHOSEN RACE [1603-1780] 169 


[1780-1870] 237 

Part 6 HUBRIS AND NEMESIS [1870-1972] 315 




INDEX 447 



Pelagius (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 
Wyclif (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 
Thomas Cromwell (The Frick Collection) 


Charter of Edward the Confessor (The Dean and Chapter of Exeter 


Council Minute of 1475 (Public Record Office] 
Letter from Archbishop Cranmer to Henry VIII (Public Record Office] 
Somerset House Conference (National Portrait Gallery] 
The Council of War 1624 (Mansell Collection) 


Peasants' Revolt (Mansell Collection) 

Execution of Lord Lovat (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 

Chartists attack Westgate Inn (James Klugmann Collection) 


Execution of Charles I (Mansell Collection) 
Surrender of Cornwallis (Mansell Collection) 

Carson and F.E. Smith at Blenheim Palace demonstration 1912 (Radio 
Times Hulton Picture Library) 


Joseph of Arimathea (Mansell Collection) 

An engraving of 1774 attacking the Quebec Bill (London Magazine) 
Letter from Cromwell to East India Company (India Office Library; 
photo: R. B. Fleming) 


Hogarth's The Roast Beef of Old England' (Tate Gallery) 
Sawney in the Boghouse (Photo: John Webb) 

Anti-French cartoon by Gillray, 'Me teach de English Republicans to 
work'. (Mansell Collection) 


Shaftesbury's Funeral (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 

The reformed House of Commons painted by Hayter (National Portrait 

Gladstone at the Haddo House dinner in 1884 (National Portrait Gallery) 


The Poacher detected 1 (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 
Queen Victoria (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library) 
Samuel Wilberforce (National Portrait Gallery) 
A Card Vote at Trades Union Congress (Radio Times Hulton Picture 


Lord Milner (Mansell Collection) 

Sir Edward Grey (Mr Seton Gordon) 

General Henry Wilson (National Portrait Gallery) 


WHY should a journalist, early in the decade of the 19705, 
sit down to write a history of the English people? Why 
should he renounce his proper function, which is to record 
and comment upon the present, and seek to explore the past, a task for 
which he is, perhaps, ill-qualified, even disqualified? My answer, in 
the first place, is that it is wrong to draw too sharp a distinction between 
the journalist and the historian. They are both in the same business: 
to communicate an understanding of events to the reader. Both are 
involved in the discovery and elucidation of truth - that is, the search 
for the facts which matter, and their arrangement in significant form. 
No one can possibly say where the historian's work ceases, and the 
journalist's begins. The present is continuously in process of becoming 
the past : the frontier of history ends only with yesterday's newspaper. 
A good journalist casts anxious and inquiring glances over his shoulder, 
and a good historian lifts his eyes from the page to look at the world 
around him. Sometimes the roles merge completely. Thucydides was 
writing not merely a history but an anguished record of contemporary 
events, in which he had acted and suffered. Bede, the first great English 
historian, living in a period of calm before the storm he sensed was 
coming, wrote not only, as he said, 'for the instruction of posterity', 
but also for the purposes of government; he told the King of Northum- 
bria in his dedication: 'You are desirous that the said history should 
be more fully made familiar to yourself, and to those over whom the 
Divine Authority has made you governor, from your great regard 
for their general welfare.' Matthew Paris was a journalist as well as a 
historian. Walter Ralegh, in his History of the World, was directing a 
gigantic and angry editorial to the subjects of James i. Clarendon's 
history of the Great Rebellion was an essay in analytical and polemical 
journalism. Macaulay, recording the destruction of the Stuarts, was 
also subjecting his early- Victorian contemporaries to a subtle exercise 
in political education. Consciously or unconsciously, most great his- 
torians have influenced contemporary events, as all journalists seek to 

In the second place, a journalist cannot divorce himself from history 
even if he wishes. He cannot prevent the past from intruding. The more 
he tries to understand the present, the further he is driven to probe into 
the past, in the search for explanations. In a sense, this is a reversal 


of F. W. Maitland's historical method, which he used in Domesday Book 
and Beyond, of advancing 'backwards from the known to the unknown, 
from the certain to the uncertain*. Seeking to peer through the mists of 
the present, the journalist uses as points of reference the established 
landmarks of the past. He sees people fighting in the streets of Belfast 
in the 19705. Why? Because of certain events which took place in 
Londonderry in 1968? Partly. But partly also because of decisions 
reached in London in 1920, and of centuries of interrelated events 
before them, reaching back into the early Middle Ages and beyond, 
almost to the first recorded episodes in Anglo-Irish relations. Not all 
this material is important, or even relevant. But the journalist cannot 
be sure until he has examined it. He must continually turn aside from 
his typewriter and reach for his bookshelves. Of course Northern Ireland 
is a theatre of action where the past plays an unusually vivid role. 
But all events, however novel, have a history; every problem is a legacy. 
Why, in the 19705, do local councils in England fight acrimonious battles 
over comprehensive schools? To understand, we must go back not 
merely to 1944, but to the roots of modern English education in the 
early nineteenth century, and to an examination of the systems which 
preceded it. Why is it so difficult to shape a wages policy for the Britain 
of the 19705 ? It is pointless to ask the question unless we are prepared 
to travel backwards into the history of British trade unionism, and 
indeed examine the origins of the present industrial structure. Why are 
strikes so frequent in the British car industry? Part of the explanation 
lies in arrangements made in the two decades before 1914, themselves 
conditioned by attitudes shaped in the very earliest phase of the in- 
dustrial revolution. Moreover, the journalist finds himself conjuring 
up the past not merely to provide answers to particular contemporary 
questions but to explain their relationship to each other. The historical 
structure of the British motor-car industry has a direct bearing on the 
struggle for a wages policy, and both are influenced by the evolution 
of the educational system. So the journalist plunges deeper and deeper 
into history, and on an ever-broadening front. Sooner or later he is 
tempted to write history himself, to satisfy his own legitimate and 
professional curiosity. 

Therein lies the origin of this book. During the years 1965-70, as 
editor of a political journal, I had the duty, week by week, to comment 
upon - to try to understand myself and explain to others - the struggles 
and failures of one of the most tragically unsuccessful governments in 
English history. I was conscious all the time that the failures lay not 
merely in the limitations of the men and women who composed the 
government, but in the nation as a whole, in its institutions and the 


attitudes which shaped them. During the 19603, this country under- 
went a profound and agonising experience. From year to year, almost 
from week to week, it shrank in its own estimation, and in that of the 
world. The Empire was gone almost before the decade commenced; but 
during it the loss was first felt, and the Commonwealth designed to 
replace it revealed as a paper sham. The decline of Britain as a world 
power, slow and almost imperceptible in the 19405 and 19505, began to 
accelerate with unmistakable speed, and palpable results. This was 
accompanied by a growing awareness that the country was falling 
behind not merely in physical strength but in material prosperity. 
There was, too, no indication whatsoever that the declension could be 
arrested, let alone reversed: we faced a future not just of comparative 
weakness, but of relative poverty, and a future in which these character- 
istics would become more pronounced with every year that passed. 
Britain had entered the age of humiliations. The failure of a govern- 
ment simply epitomised and reflected the diminution of a people. 

Was this process natural, indeed inevitable? Was it even desirable? 
What precisely did we mean by failure? The loss of imperial and world 
status might prove an advantage, a slow growth-rate a blessing. Power 
and wealth have never borne much relation to human happiness. On the 
threshold of the 19703, the English could hardly be described as a 
suffering or an abject nation, nor even, by their own standards, a 
particularly discontented one. They enjoyed more freedom than ever 
before: not merely individual liberties, which had been greatly enlarged 
in the past decade, but the collective freedom from onerous respon- 
sibilities in the world. They enjoyed, too, a degree of civil peace and 
internal stability without precedent in their history, and without 
parallel abroad. They might take such things for granted: to most of 
the world these seemed enviable and elusive privileges. Was there not, 
perhaps, a certain logic in this national balance-sheet : the loss of power 
compensated by a real gain in security? If Britain were still running 
a world empire, operating as a great power, and throbbing with the 
rapid economic growth needed to sustain such efforts, could it possibly 
be an untroubled, law-abiding and stable country, let alone an agreeable 
one in which to live ? 

These questions naturally provoked others. What sort of people did 
the English wish to be, and what kind of country did they prefer to 
inhabit? Clearly, one could not begin to answer these without dis- 
covering how far the evolution of Britain, the type of country it was, 
and the position it had occupied in the world, was a matter of conscious 
choice by its predominant people, reflecting, with due allowance for the 
accident of events, their attitudes, aspirations and desires. In short, to 


make a worthwhile comment on the present predicament of the English, 
it seemed to me necessary to explore their history back to its very roots, 
to relate present to past, and on the basis of this connection to make 
some tentative projections into the future. I wanted to read a book 
which did this ; but none such existed. So I decided to write it myself. 

Such an audacious project is open to a number of powerful objections, 
of which I have been painfully aware. To begin with, the literature of 
English history is enormous and constantly increasing. Even by, say, 
the beginning of the Second World War, it was already difficult for a 
single writer to have read and absorbed the salient works of specialised 
history covering a period of more than 2,000 years. Since then there has 
been an explosion of English historical studies. One writer, summarising 
work on early English history since 1939, describes the production as 
'gargantuan' ; another, surveying the later Middle Ages, refers to recent 
research as 'a tidal river in full flood' ; much the same could be said 
of later periods.* Moreover, English history since 1914, and even since 
1945, now attracts a growing body of industrious and fertile scholars. 
A sizeable library could be formed from books dealing with aspects of 
English history published in the last 20 years, even discounting the 
enormous number of biographies which have poured from the presses; 
in addition there are thousands of monographs printed in scores of 
learned journals; and behind all these lie miles of archives and papers 
now open to inspection. One recent volume, covering less than a year 
of a single aspect of English history, involved the inspection of 60 
hitherto unexplored collections of private papers. How can any one 
person - and a non-professional, too - hope to familiarise himself with 
such an enormous output, let alone master it ? 

Yet it would be a tragedy if writers of history were to allow them- 
selves to become, like the physical scientists, the inhibited prisoners of 
available knowledge, and accept ant-like roles in a huge, impersonal 
industry, which no one mind felt capable of surveying as a whole. 
As one brilliant young historian has wisely observed, 'History does be- 
long to everyman: that is a strength, not a weakness. 'f The people 
have a right to be taught their history in a form they can grasp. If this 
is acknowledged to be impossible, then the labours of professional 
historians seem to me to be largely futile, self-indulgent, self-propagating 

* I quote from Changing Views on British History : Essays on Historical Writing since 
1939, edited by Elizabeth Chapin Furber (Harvard 1966). In the five years since this 
survey was published, vast and valuable additions have been made to English historical 

f Arthur Marwick in The Nature of History (London 1970), the latest and most com- 
prehensive work on the theory and practice of history, and the evolution of historical 


exercises in mere antiquarianism. A certain ruthlessness is required, a 
willingness to accept the responsibility of making choices and forming 
judgments, a readiness to select, discount and discard. 

Historical research tends to move in circles. A traditional view is 
inherited from the actual protagonists, and becomes orthodox, text- 
book history. In time, an enterprising historian comes along, subjects 
it to critical analysis, and produces a significantly new version. He 
breeds pupils, who form a revisionist school, and push his conclusions 
much further. With the advent of a new generation, there is a counter- 
revolution: the revisionist theory is itself assaulted. Sometimes a new 
synthesis is evolved. Sometimes the matter is now seen to be too com- 
plex to admit of any firm explanation, and the reader (who has followed 
the historians thus far) is left confused. More often, a modified version 
of the traditional view is re-established. Much academic blood is spilt, 
and little progress achieved. Moreover, professional historians are 
human, indeed all too human; often the smoke of controversy, of 
theory and counter-theory, conceals personal antagonisms rooted in 
ancient common-room brawls, or in disputes which have nothing to do 
with history. J.H. Round's ferocious assaults on Professor Freeman, 
for instance, were motivated, at least in part, by Round's hatred of 
Mr Gladstone, Liberalism in general, Little Englandism in particular 
and, not least, the anti-blood-sports lobby. One could quote modern 
examples, of which there are many. 

More seriously, much research tends to obscure, rather than reveal, 
the truth; or, most depressing of all, to suggest that truth cannot be 
finally established, often on matters of outstanding importance. Just 
as astronomers seem unable to agree on the salient point of whether 
the universe is expanding, contracting or standing still, so historians 
constantly reveal new areas of doubt, or violent disagreement, on points 
which had once seemed clear. Thus: the Roman city was a failure in 
Britain; it was a substantial success. The Anglo-Saxon Church (and 
Anglo-Saxon society as a whole) was backward; its cultural and artistic 
achievements were immense. There was no 'feudalism' in England 
before the Conquest; there was 'feudalism*. The English population 
rose in the early fourteenth century; it fell dramatically. The fifteenth 
century was a period of economic decline; it was a period of exceptional 
dynamism. Similar black and white contrasting versions, held with 
angry tenacity and backed by massive documentation, envelop the 
nature of the Tudor monarchy, the origins of the Civil War, the loss of 
the American colonies, the politics of George ill's England, and the 
origins and chronology of the industrial revolution, to mention only a 
few vital aspects of English history. Sometimes historians meet in 


seminar to debate their disagreements, not, as a rule, to much purpose. 
The layman can only survey the battlefield from a quoin of vantage, 
and make up his own mind about the honours of victory. Pierre Mendes- 
France used to say, to his divided cabinet, 'Gouverner, cest choisir'. 
To write general history it is necessary to make choices, almost on 
every page. This I have done, without bravado but also without fear; 
and if I am often wrong, I have the comforting words of the present 
Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, who has observed that 
there are times 'when a new error is more life-giving than an old truth, a 
fertile error than a sterile accuracy*. 

There is a further objection to such a book as this : that it rests on the 
assumption that what happened in the past has some constructive 
relevance to our own times. This view would be wholly repudiated by 
many historians. Some have gone further. The great historian of the 
seventeenth century, S.R. Gardiner, for instance, held that the avowed 
or unavowed comparison with the present is 'altogether destructive of 
historical knowledge'. 'He who studies the society of the past/ he wrote, 
'will be of the greater service to the society of the present in proportion 
as he leaves it out of account/ I do not agree; indeed, it is an impossible 
aim. Every historian has his contemporary bias; better to acknowledge 
it explicitly than to assume, wrongly, that it does not exist. It is no 
accident that Bishop Stubbs, writing in the golden age of the parlia- 
mentary statute, should have seen English history as primarily the 
development of constitutional forms, above all of Parliament ; or that 
Professor Tout, whose own lifetime saw the birth and growth of 'big 
government', should have sought the key to English history in adminis- 
tration. Every age rewrites the history of the past in its own terms. We 
each have only one pair of eyes to see, and they are modern ones. In 
History as the Story of Liberty, Benedetto Croce pointed out that : 

The practical requirements which underlie every historical judgment give 
to all history the character of 'contemporary history', because, however 
remote in time events thus recounted may seem to be, the history in reality 
refers to present needs and present situations wherein those events vibrate. 

This seems to me almost beyond argument, because it is impossible to 
still those vibrations. The writing of history, as Professor E.H. Carr 
puts it, is a 'dialogue between the present and the past'. Each age makes 
a different analysis of what has gone before, and extracts from it 
significant pointers, lessons and warnings. It is in the nature of man to 
pray to his ancestors for guidance. He may, of course, receive nothing 
but riddles. Lord Acton, in one of his lectures, overstated the case when 
he claimed: 'The knowledge of the past, the record of truth revealed 



by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a 
power that goes to the making of the future/ The truth is often unclear, 
and statesmanship (not least in our own lifetime) frequently founders 
on false analogies. But most sensible men, in all ages, have been closer 
to Acton's view than Gardiner's. History has always, and properly, 
been regarded as 'the school of princes'. We should not hesitate - we 
should be eager - to make it the school of peoples. 

A third objection to this book is that, in its exclusive preoccupation 
with the English, or rather with the peoples who have occupied the 
land we call England, it presupposes that history is Anglocentric, and 
is therefore irrelevant in an age when the centres of world power have 
shifted elsewhere. Many modern historians, notably Professor Geoffrey 
Barraclough in his admirable book, History in a Changing World, 
have urged that we should abandon the habit of writing history based 
on the assumption that a particular race is the sole active agent. Such 
advice has been widely followed. One American scholar notes sadly 
the decline of English historical studies in the United States in a period 

the subject has to fight hard for a toe-hold in curricula in which students 
are invited to study such topics as the dynamics of Soviet power, under- 
development among the African peoples, the renascence of Moslem culture, or 
parliamentary institutions in Asian countries, and when English history has 
been dropped altogether from the curriculum of most schools. 

Now I object strongly to this drift away from English history, which 
is part of a wider movement away from European and North Atlantic 
history. Virtually all the ideas, knowledge, techniques and institutions 
around which the world revolves came from the European theatre and 
its ocean offshoots; many of them came quite explicitly from England, 
which was the principal matrix of modern society. Moreover, the West 
is still the chief repository of free institutions; and these alone, in the 
long run, guarantee further progress in ideas and inventions. Powerful 
societies are rising elsewhere not by virtue of their rejection of western 
world habits but by their success in imitating them. What ideas has Soviet 
Russia produced? Or Communist China? Or post-war Japan? Where is 
the surge of discovery from the Arab world? Or liberated Africa? Or, 
for that matter, from Latin America, independent now for more than 
150 years? It is a thin harvest indeed, distinguished chiefly by infinite 
variations on the ancient themes of violence, cruelty, suppression of 
freedom and the destruction of the individual spirit. The sober and 
unpopular truth is that whatever hope there is for mankind - at least 
for the foreseeable future - lies in the ingenuity and the civilised 


standards of the West, above all in those western elements permeated 
by English ideas and traditions. To deny this is to surrender to fashion- 
able cant and humbug. When we are taught by the Russians and the 
Chinese how to improve the human condition, when the Japanese give 
us science, and the Africans a great literature, when the Arabs show us 
the road to prosperity and the Latin Americans to freedom, then will 
be the time to change the axis of our history. 

Meanwhile, the story of the English is an instructive one, for others as 
well as themselves. It has strong elements of continuity, so that one 
can detect attitudes and characteristics, shaped by geography, among 
the islanders long before they acquired their mature racial composition. 
It has the true and graceful symmetry of art : a backward island gently 
washed by the tides of Continental cultures; its separate development 
rudely forced out of true by colonisation; independence seized, repeated- 
ly lost, at last firmly established within a complex racial mould; the 
intellectual divorce from the Continent; the expansion overseas; the 
crystallisation, within the island, of an entirely new material culture, 
which spreads over the earth; the moment of power and arrogance, 
dissolving into ruinous wars; the survival, and the quest for new 
roles. This is not the stuff from which gigantic and delusive theories of 
history can be built. There is nothing in it which is inevitable; but 
nothing purely accidental either. English history is the study of re- 
current and changing themes, and the evolution of national paradoxes. 
It is a story well worth telling, and one which each generation of us will 
wish to tell afresh. 

Iver, Buckinghamshire 
January ig?2 



The Pelagian Island 

[lOO BC-AD 6OO] 

IN the year AD 410 Britain ceased to be a Roman colony and became 
an independent state. The inhabitants of the offshore island - 
or rather the settled lowland parts of it which we now call England 
- shook off the shackles of a vast European system, which tied it 
politically, economically and militarily to the Continental land-mass, 
and took charge of their own destinies. This event is usually presented 
in English history as a catastrophe, in which the protective umbrella 
of Rome was removed, and the defenceless inhabitants of the island 
exposed to the fury of the barbarians: civilisation in Britain was ex- 
tinguished for centuries and the island vanished into the long night of 
the Dark Ages. 

But the truth is more complex, more interesting and, in the light of 
the island's later history, more significant. The difficulty is that we have 
only scraps of information from which to compile an account of what 
happened; and any such account must be based to a large extent on 
interpretation, and even guesswork. But it is worth our while to make 
a reconstruction, because it can tell us something important about the 
history of the offshore islanders, and show how geography, as well as 
racial composition, shapes English history. 

During the last decades of the fourth century, the British provinces 
of the Roman Empire had been progressively denuded of regular 
imperial troops. Already the authority of Rome did not run beyond 
York in the north, and Chester and Gloucester in the west; and even 
this authority was maintained rather by imperial expeditions, sent from 
the Continent under specially assigned generals, than by a standing 
garrison. By the turn of the century, the Roman military organisation 
in Britain had virtually ceased to exist, though a few units remained, 
and the civil administration was still carrying out its functions. But about 
this time we begin to detect faint traces of the emergence of British 
public opinion. Until now the Britons had played no perceptible role 
in imperial politics. Since the revolt of Boudicca, nearly three and a half 
centuries before, they had appeared to be model, or at least docile, 
colonial subjects. But the decline in Roman authority - the growing 
evidence that the Empire was incapable of discharging its military 
responsibilities - produced two distinct currents of political thought 
among the native inhabitants of the colony. On the one hand there were 
those who believed that Rome was still capable of re-establishing its 


powers ; that only Rome was able to maintain internal order and ex- 
ternal security; that without Rome civilisation would disappear, and 
the lives and property of all be at risk, and that therefore the only 
hope for the islanders was to re-forge and strengthen the imperial links, 
and place their trust wholly in the resources of civilised Europe. Un- 
tethered from the Continent, Britain would drift into anarchy, and 
life would become brutal, nasty and short. 

On the other hand there was the independence party, the nationalists. 
They could argue that the forces which were tearing the empire apart 
were irreversible : that it was foolish and dangerous to place any con- 
fidence in a revival of Roman military power; that in any event Britain 
had a low place in Rome's scheme of priorities, and that her interests 
would be sacrificed without compunction to the needs of the imperial 
heartland. In recent years such Roman military bosses as had set up 
station in Britain had been more anxious to carve out sub-empires for 
themselves on the Continent than to protect British lives and property. 
They had become tyrannical adventurers, and had taken the pjrecious 
regular units in Britain across the Channel on personal expeditions, 
leaving the Britons unprotected. Consider the events of four years 
before, in 406. The remnants of the Roman force in Britain, under pres- 
sure from local public opinion, had chosen a native, Gratian, as their 
local emperor. The act was plainly illegal. The historian Orosius called 
him municeps tyrannus; he presumably came from London, where he 
held office in the local administration; and his appointment was an 
unwarranted act on the part of the army and the British civic com- 
munities. It made sense, however, from the point of view of British 
interests, if Gratian could keep the forces together, and use them solely 
to defend the island from external attack. But this they declined to 
accept. When, four months after his appointment, Gratian made it 
plain they had to stay in Britain, they murdered him; instead, they 
gave the command to a new and foreign usurper, who called himself 
Constantine in; and he took all the regular units across the Channel 
to create a Gallic empire. In 410 these events were remembered with 
bitterness by the Britons. They provided arguments for the independ- 
ence party which were difficult to refute. What use was Rome to 
Britain? Britain had been for centuries exploited as an economic 
colony. She had been accorded only the barest measure of local self- 
government. If Roman authority was fully re-established, the process 
of exploitation would merely be resumed. But in the meantime Rome was 
impotent, and the time had come to assert British independence. 

These practical arguments on both sides were overshadowed by an 
intellectual debate which was both religious and political. For a century, 


since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the official religion of 
the Empire had been Christianity. Though the administrative centre 
of the Empire had been transferred to Byzantium, the state religion was 
still centrally conducted from Rome. Already indeed its chain of 
command, and its contacts with outlying regions such as Britain, were 
maintained in a more regular fashion than the political and military 
functions of the Empire. Christianity still had a working international 
infrastructure. This religion, by its very nature, was centralised, 
universalist, authoritarian and anti-regional. It was run by a disciplined 
priestly caste, commanded by bishops based on the imperial urban 
centres, under the ultimate authority of the Bishop of Rome himself, 
the spiritual voice of the western Empire. Its doctrines were absolutist, 
preaching unthinking submission to divine authority: the Emperor and 
his high priest, the Bishop of Rome, in this world, and a unitary god, 
who appointed the Emperor, in the next. Man was born in sin, and must 
accept tribulation as inevitable; he could indeed be redeemed, but only 
by an authority external to him - God in the next world, the Emperor 
in this. Salvation, now and for ever, lay solely with the Christian 
Empire. These attitudes and doctrines underlay the political posture of 
the pro-imperial party in Britain. 

They had, however, come under increasing challenge from a theolo- 
gian who took an altogether less pessimistic view of the human con- 
dition, and of the divine dispensation for man. Significantly, this 
theologian was British. Pelagius was born in Britain, of native stock, 
about AD 350, and was about thirty when he first travelled to Rome. 
He had had a good education, in the legal traditions of the Empire, 
but his outlook had been shaped by the local environment - physical, 
political and economic - of a distant province, which had never been 
more than semi-Romanised, and which was a very peripheral factor in 
imperial policy. Pelagius attacked the prevailing orthodoxy of Roman 
Christianity. When Adam sinned, he argued, he injured himself only: 
it was nonsense to pretend his fault was transmitted to every human 
being, to be effaced only by divine grace; a child was baptised to be 
united with Christ, not to be purged of original sin. Man was a rational, 
perfectible creature: he could live without sin if he chose; grace was 
desirable, but not essential. Man was a free being, with the power to 
choose between good and evil. He could become the master of his 
destiny: the most important thing about him was his freedom of will. If 
he fell, that was his own fault; but by his actions he could rise too. 

Pelagianism was the spiritual formula for nationalism, for the 
independence movements breaking out from a crumbling empire. In 
the year 410 Pelagius was still in Rome, leaving it just before the city 



was sacked by the Goths. His work was by no means complete, and had 
not yet been anathematised by a Church which saw it as a threat to its 
universalist authority. But his views were already widely known and 
arousing fierce controversy. They were hotly repudiated by the ortho- 
dox political and religious element who saw the re-establishment of the 
Empire, in all its plenitude, as the only hope of salvation from the 
barbarian. But they were eagerly accepted by those who thought that 
the Empire was already dead, and that individual communities must 
look to their own defences. Man could save himself by his exertions, and 
others by his example: in this world as well as in the next. The Empire 
could not, by a miraculous infusion of grace, turn back the savages 
from the gates: only organised local resistance could do that. Possibly 
even the barbarians themselves could be brought within the pale 
of civilisation, and unite with local citizens in building viable societies 
to their mutual profit. Pelagius had pointed out that free will existed 
even among the barbarians; they too were perfectible, could choose 
freedom and profit from it. 

These arguments had a particular appeal in Britain, which had al- 
ways felt itself a neglected, despised and expendable outpost of the 
Continental imperial system. There is no evidence Pelagius ever re- 
turned to Britain. But he was not the only British member of his school; 
one of the most energetic and vehement of his companions was also a 
Briton, and there may have been others. At any rate his beliefs were 
widely held in Britain by 410 : there was a strong Pelagian party among 
the British propertied class. There, orthodox Christianity was no more 
than a powerful, officially endorsed sect; perhaps not even the pre- 
dominant one. Not all the leading Britons were convinced that Christi- 
anity was the only religion. In the late fourth century there had been a 
pagan revival in Britain, which has left traces in the splendid shrine 
of Nodens, in the west country, built possibly as late as AD 400. Among the 
British Pelagians, at least, there was an ambivalent attitude to other 
religions, a refusal to recognise Christianity as the exclusive route to 
salvation, a willingness to do business with the unconverted. This 
could be expressed in political and military, as well as religious, terms. 
Tolerance may have been dictated by common sense. Nearly 150 years 
later, the monk Gildas, writing from the standpoint of orthodox 
Christianity, blames the destruction of an independent Britain by 
barbarous invaders on the moral failings of the British, their lack of 
resolution in their faith. Echoing him, Bede says that the British were 
submerged because they made no attempt to convert the heathen to 
Christianity. But Gildas's account is avowedly didactic, not historical; 
he was a partisan, among other things an anti-Pelagian. His recon- 



struction of events after 410 distorts what actually happened, for he 
made himself the mouthpiece of the pro-imperial party. To negotiate 
with the barbarians, on the basis of a mutual tolerance of race and 
religion, was an obvious course for the British nationalists, who were 
also Pelagians. Saxons had been established, as military settlers fed- 
erated to the provincial authorities, on parts of the East Coast for many 
decades. They were part of Britain's defensive system, such as it was* 
It was sensible to encourage others, of Jutish and Frisian and Prankish 
origin, moving across the narrow seas, to settle themselves in Kent in 
organised, law-abiding communities, working in co-operation with the 
British authorities for the defence of all the island's peoples. These 
settlers had been touched by civilisation; they were not outer barbar- 
ians but military tribes who could be used against them. The story of 
the British Vortigern, or High King, and Hengist and Horsa, reflects 
an arrangement which made good political and military sense at the 
time. It ended in tragedy, according to the subsequent gloss of both 
British and English Dark Age historians. But it may, in fact, have 
successfully ensured a limited period of peace in which newly in- 
dependent Britain could organise itself. And the collapse of the British 
State, which endured in some form for nearly 150 years, seems to have 
been brought about by civil war rather than external attack; moreover, 
our only account of what happened comes from Gildas, who was a 
leading member of one of the British factions. 

At any rate, in 410 the Pelagian nationalist party in Britain took 
control, though its authority, and policy, were qualified. We know 
roughly what happened from the historian Zosimus. He says that in 410 
an enormous army of barbarians crossed the Rhine, without effective 
resistance from the imperial authorities. The British revolted from 
Roman rule, and established a national state. They took up arms, freed 
their cities from the barbarian invaders, expelled the remaining members 
of the imperial administration and set up their own system of govern- 

This was, in one sense, an anti-colonial revolution, the execution of 
the political programme of the Pelagian party. But it was significantly 
more than this. The pro-imperial, or pro-European party, was suffici- 
ently influential to impose its own limitations on this course of action. 
Possibly it was felt that Roman power might eventually re-establish 
itself, and steps must therefore be taken to cover such an arbitrary act 
with some show of constitutional legality. There may have been a 
compromise between the two parties. Under Roman imperial law, the 
British were permitted one form of organised political activity. The 
settled part of the country - which is all that concerns us here - was 



divided into regions, originally on a tribal basis, administered from 
city-capitals. They were, in effect, cantons, with elected magistrates, 
who lived mostly on their country estates, but who spent some months 
of each year in the cantonal cities on legal and financial business. 
Periodically the senior magistrates were allowed to attend councils 
of the whole province, to organise the administration of the State 
religion; originally they had elected the imperial high priests at such 
assemblies. Hence the only form of representative national government 
took place in a religious context ; and this is one reason why the Pela- 
gian issue was of such importance to the events of 410. In that year 
members of the council met in emergency session, to coordinate resis- 
tance to the invasion and determine political policy. As we have seen, 
they opted for independence, and took vigorous measures to secure it. 
Roman Britain was in many respects a multi-racial society. Though 
predominantly Celtic, many Britons were descended from settlers and 
soldiers from a great variety of races, chiefly German. The magistrates, 
assembled in London, the administrative and commercial centre, 
spoke Latin, the language of government, in a pure and uncorrupted 
form, which was already foreign to Rome itself. Their native tongue 
was a mixture of Celtic dialects. Some of those present, representing the 
eastern settlers, may have spoken only Germanic dialects, with a 
smattering of Latin. It must have been a heterogeneous collection of 
notables united only by their common predicament. 

Nevertheless, what they did was a unique act of statesmanship. 
Having seized power for themselves, they wrote to the Emperor 
Honorius asking formal and legal authority for what they had done. 
They had got independence de facto ; they now wanted it de jure, a 
written acknowledgment from the imperial power that Britain had 
been decolonised with the permission of the authorities. More specific- 
ally, they wanted exemption from the famous lex Julia de vi publica, 
the bedrock statute of the Roman Empire, which forbade civilians to 
bear arms except when hunting or travelling. In due course they got it. 
Honorius sent his rescript, or reply, accepting the fait accompli, and 
instructing the civitates of Britain to look to their own defences. Thus 
the ancient world ended, and the independent history of Britain was 
resumed, in a thoroughly legal and constitutional manner. There was 
no provision in Roman law for a territory to leave the Empire. But by an 
ingenious use of the lex Julia, the British got round the difficulty, and 
severed their links with the Continent by a process of negotiation 
which legitimatised their use of force. It was a unique event in the history 
of the Roman Empire; it was based on no precedent, and had no paral- 
lels elsewhere. For the first time a colony had regained its independence 



by law; and it was to remain the last occasion until, in the twentieth 
century, the offshore islanders began the constitutional dismantlement 
of their own empire. 

What in fact the British were doing was resuming their pattern of 
insular development, dictated by climate, ecology and geography. The 
lowland parts of Britain are unique in our hemisphere. The climate is 
temperate, there is just enough sun, and just enough rainfall, to permit 
settled cultivation; too few mountainous areas to impede it. The soil 
is fertile; rivers are conveniently small and abundant, communication 
is possible. The terrible excesses of nature are absent: floods, droughts 
and tempests operate within a tolerable range of magnitude. It is pos- 
sible to create a prosperous and self-generating economy here, as it is 
not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales; the Channel is wide enough to permit 
a degree of social independence, but narrow enough to serve as an 
access to Continental cultures. In prehistory lowland Britain was 
always a receptacle of population movements from the east and south, 
settling in numbers limited by the hazards of the Channel crossing, 
cutting their social, but not cultural, bonds with the Continent. In the 
highland areas it was far more difficult for settled, farming societies to 
establish themselves. But in lowland Britain there is a continuous 
process of cultural and economic progress, with marked characteristics 
not to be found on mainland Europe. In Palaeolithic and Mesolithic 
times there were perhaps no more than 3,000 people in this area, 
living exclusively by hunting. In the Neolithic age, from 3,000 BC, a 
form of primitive farming began to emerge : scrub and woodland was 
cleared and burnt, a corn crop sown and harvested, then the process 
repeated elsewhere; small herds of cattle and sheep were kept. Even so, 
the population rose very slowly: it was perhaps only 20,000 at the 
beginning of the Bronze Age. Seen in the long perspective of history, 
Britain was a very late developer. When the Greek colonists began to 
build their great city of Syracuse in Sicily, Britain was still wholly 
locked in the restrictive culture of the late Bronze Age, with a popula- 
tion of less than 100,000. The use of iron was unknown here when 
Solon ruled Athens, when Croesus was King of Lydia, when Cyrus took 
Babylon. The iron culture reached Britain only at the end of the sixth 
century BC, and it spread far more slowly than on Continental Europe. 
The British do not seem to have constituted an innovatory society in 
any way. But some of their creations were remarkable. Stonehenge was 
a kind of state cathedral, of great size and complexity, altered and 
re-built several times during the period 1900-1400 BC; the rings of 


Avebury were still larger. The British hill-forts, too, were larger and more 
numerous than anything produced by similar cultures on the Continent. 
Nevertheless, Britain remained in every respect a cultural and economic 
backwater until the last wave of settlers, the Belgic peoples of northern 
Gaul, reached the island just before the beginning of the first century 

The Belgae were Celts, but they incorporated certain characteristics 
of the German forest-dwellers, and they had also been touched by the 
outermost ripples of advancing Roman civilisation. Settling in Kent, 
Sussex, Hampshire, Essex and the Thames Valley, they introduced 
agricultural methods which allowed, for the first time, the systematic 
cultivation of the heavy and productive lowland soils. They probably 
did not possess ploughs armed with a coulter, capable of turning the 
sod. But they used iron in much greater quantity than any previous 
society in Britain: they had many more ploughs, and other implements, 
and above all thousands of axes. They cleared the forests on a consider- 
able scale, and settled in the valleys on sites which have been occupied 
ever since. For the first time the topographical axis of agriculture, and 
thus of society, began to shift from the uplands to the lowlands, and the 
new areas thus brought under cultivation made possible an increasingly 
rapid growth of population. The business of clearing the forest was to 
last for 1,000 years, and was the first decisive economic event in the 
history of the offshore island. 

Hence, in the first century BC, lowland Britain was a territory in the 
course of rapid economic, social and indeed political development. In 
the terms of the Ancient World, it had reached what can be called a 
take-off stage in its history. Between the beginning of this century and 
about 50 BC, the population probably doubled, from a quarter to half a 
million. Much larger tribal units, and later tribal confederations, began 
to emerge. Their kings were identifiable personages, exercising author- 
ity over large areas. They traded extensively, replacing the iron bars 
originally used for exchange by regular coins, first brought from Gaul, 
later minted locally. Here was a living, expanding, progressive society, 
whose members were conscious of radical, even revolutionary, changes 
taking place in their own lifetimes. But it was at precisely this moment 
that Britain came in contact with Rome. This has produced a funda- 
mental distortion of history: not only is British development henceforth 
seen entirely in terms of the growth and decline of the Roman Empire, 
but it is seen exclusively through Roman eyes. Britain was incorpora- 
ted into Continental Europe, and its history became a mere peripheral 
function of the history of a great land-civilisation. 
To get a truer perspective, we must switch the angle of vision from 



the Roman to the British and try to examine events as they would have 
been seen through intelligent British eyes. They are the eyes of a pre- 
colonial, a colonial, and a post-colonial people. During the period of 
Caesar's conquest of Gaul, the British kings and their advisers watched 
with growing anxiety the rapid approach of a great Continental military 
power. For the first time a political society existed in Britain capable 
of opposing a cross-Channel invasion, and therefore able to formulate a 
conscious policy towards the Continent. But it was also aware of the 
definite material advantages of Roman civilisation, and realised that its 
growing prosperity depended in great part on cross-Channel trade and 
contacts. How could it get the best of both worlds - that is, exploit the 
opportunities offered by an expanding European culture and market, 
without risking incorporation, and thus exploitation, in the political and 
military system of the land-mass ? This is the fatal question which has 
always confronted the inhabitants of lowland Britain. It has never 
received a final answer, and perhaps no final answer is possible. 

At the time, the British reacted in a manner characteristic of pre- 
colonial peoples. They prevaricated; they were indecisive; they were 
ambivalent. They gave some assistance to the Gallic tribes which were 
fighting Caesar: not enough to stem his advance, but enough to give 
him a pretext to invade. They were willing to make treaties, but not to 
keep them if they involved real sacrifices of economic and political 
sovereignty. They were always anxious to play for time, hoping, no 
doubt, for some deus ex machina in the shape of a change of policy in 
Rome. But they were also divided. Some British chieftains were 
active supporters of Caesar. One or two even worked with his invading 
forces. At every British court there was a pro- and an anti-Roman 
faction. In some cases the pro-Roman faction triumphed: the Trino- 
vantes of Essex, for instance, feared the aggressive expansion of the 
tribal confederation north of the Thames, and adopted a pro-Roman 
posture: their alliance with Caesar made possible the limited success of 
his second invasion. And at other tribal courts, if the anti-Roman 
faction triumphed, ousted politicians often sought refuge with the 
Roman Authorities. 

On the whole, Caesar's two invasions must have persuaded a majority 
of the British political elite that, by one means or another, Rome 
could be held at bay. Caesar, in his commentaries, puts the best possible 
gloss on his expeditions ; but both came near to disaster, and were marked 
by recklessness, lack of preparation and a confusion in Caesar's own 
mind as to what his objectives really were. They did not impress 
the British, nor, in the end, did they impress Rome. After the first 
one, the Senate, relying on Caesar's dispatches, accorded him an 



unprecedented triumph. But the second, much more costly, was accom- 
panied by many independent observers, who wrote letters home ; and this 
time Caesar's withdrawal was greeted by a resounding silence in Rome. 
Moreover, his ineffective manoeuvrings across the Channel clearly 
helped to inspire revolt on the mainland. The British could reasonably 
assume that the Romans would not return, and for the next hundred 
years it looked as if they were right. 

During this period, the evidence reveals an unprecedented growth of 
prosperity in Britain. The British were indeed getting the best of both 
worlds. They imported huge quantities of pottery from the Continent, 
but also began to make their own sophisticated models. They exported a 
wide range of products, and developed their own mines. They had their 
own coinage, and not just in the areas of Belgic settlements. Strabo, the 
Roman court geographer, claimed that Britain's rulers had made 'the 
whole island almost a Roman colony' ; but the stress should be placed 
on the 'almost'. The British were deriving all the benefits of economic 
contacts with a great Continental market, with none of the disad- 
vantages of economic and political subjection. Living standards were 
rising fast, probably much faster than on the Continent. Equally import- 
ant, Britain was making rapid progress towards political unity. By the 
time of the Claudian invasion in AD 43, a single paramount power was 
emerging in the south-east. Given a few more decades, it is possible that 
the whole of lowland Britain would have been absorbed into a single 
military state, making an invasion and occupation of the island beyond 
Rome's resources. If so, the history of north-west Europe for a thousand 
years would have been radically different, for a unitary kingdom in 
lowland Britain has always constituted a formidable power. 

Fear of an emergent British kingdom was undoubtedly one factor in 
persuading the Romans to annex Britain, though another was clearly 
the growing prosperity of the British lowlands. There was always a 
fierce argument in Rome as to whether the Empire should expand or 
not. The prospect of acquiring wealth from new territories had to be 
balanced against the enormous cost of fixed garrisons, and especially 
the legions, each of which, in terms of finance and skilled manpower, was 
the equivalent of a nuclear aircraft-carrier today. Rome lacked a 
modern economy. It had no developing technology and no industrial 
base, because it did not know how to create demands for new goods 
and services, or even how to create mass-markets for what it already 
produced. It could not, or at any rate did not, raise the purchasing power 
of the overwhelming majority of its subjects. It simply spread a thin 
and static level of economic culture wherever it went, exporting crafts- 
men and techniques rather than goods, and failing wholly to develop the 



specialisations which are the key to self-sustaining economic growth. 
The Empire had to expand to survive at all; once it ceased to expand, 
its currency collapsed in inflation, and there was no way to pay for the 
armies to defend the imperial frontiers.* These problems, though not 
understood, were already making themselves felt at the time of the 
Claudian conquest. Britain had been left alone because Caesar's ex- 
periences had given the island the reputation of being difficult to deal 
with, and not worth the trouble. But evidence of rising prosperity and 
developing unity in Britain tipped the balance of argument at the Roman 
court in favour of conquest. But it was a near thing: a few decades 
later Rome might have decided otherwise. 

For the mass of the British, the Roman occupation was a disaster. 
It is true that some tribes welcomed the Romans, or at any rate found 
it prudent to sign treaties with them rather than fight. Caratacus, a 
man of great resources and pertinacity, was never able to create 
anything approaching a national confederation against the invader. 
Many chieftains found it worth their while to accept the role, titles and 
dignities of puppet sovereigns. Some allowed their followers to be dis- 
armed. The propertied class found access to the Rome credit market a 
new adventure, and quickly borrowed huge sums which they used to 
buy the new range of sophisticated trinkets touted in the wake of the 
legions. But the experience of the first generation of colonial rule was 
decisive in turning the British against their conquerors. What is signi- 
ficant about Boudicca's rebellion was that it was a mass-uprising among 
both a tribe which had been conquered by Rome and one which had 
freely submitted. Evidently all sections of opinion in Britain came to 
resent the occupation, which was marked by blatant racism and the 
systematic exploitation of all classes. The rising was savage enough to 
bring about a change in Roman policy: even the Romans came to recog- 
nise that they must govern with some element of consent. All the same, 
the rapid rise in living standards, which had been such a striking feature 
of the last pre-colonial century, was halted and then reversed. The 
mineral wealth of the country passed wholly into Roman hands, 
exploited directly by the imperial government, or under licence by 
Roman firms. Tin-mining was halted so as not to interfere with the 

* In the first century AD, a pound of gold was the equivalent of 1,000 denarii, the basic 
silver coin. The silver coinage declined steadily in relation to gold, and in the mid-third 
century the monetary system disintegrated. In 301 Diocletian attempted to stabilise the 
currency on the basis of 50,000 denarii to a pound of gold ; but a decade later the figure 
was 120,000. By 324 it had risen to 300,000 and by 337 it was 20 million; in the 3503 it 
was 330 million. The Roman Empire was destroyed by inflation, though this itself was 
the result of deeper causes. See Sture Bolin: State and Currency in the Roman Empire to 
AD 300 (Stockholm, 1958). 



tin-profits of imperial Spain. Many forms of economic activity were 
banned. Huge tracts of the best land became imperial estates, worked by 
slave-colonies. A small British propertied class was allowed to survive, 
to ape Roman customs and even to discharge minor functions; but it 
did not get citizenship as of right for 150 years, and by then the privilege 
had lost much of its value. Most of the British were pushed down the 
scale, both socially and economically; they received nothing from Rome, 
though some of them picked up a smattering of its language. It is an 
astonishing thing that, in 350 years of Roman occupation, only a 
tiny handful of British-born subjects achieved even the most junior 
prominence in the Empire. And we cannot be sure that these, whose 
names we know, were British by race. 

The predicament of the British was not improved by the uncertainties 
and abrupt reversals of Roman policy. Indeed the British must have 
been puzzled and angered by the evident inability of the Romans to 
decide what they wanted to do with the island. The Roman occupation 
always had an air of improvisation. It was a badly planned experiment, 
which successive generations of Roman statesmen tinkered with, and 
then abandoned without finishing. At one time or another, most of the 
best brains in Rome took a hand in British affairs: Caesar, Claudius, 
Vespasian, Hadrian, Septimus Severus, Constantine. But to all of them 
it was a marginal problem: it never focused itself at the centre of 
Rome's preoccupations. Rome treated Britain as, later, the English were 
to treat Ireland: as a tiresome and unresolved problem, to be dealt 
with only when it reached crisis-point, and then to be forgotten. Only 
Agricola, who devoted a large part of his life to Britain, seems to have 
had a deliberate and consistent policy: he wanted to conquer the whole 
of the British Isles, but was recalled when his projects were seen to be 
ruinously expensive. 

It was money which damned the Roman experiment in Britain. It 
was impossible to create a profit-making colony which was also defens- 
ible. If vigorous measures were taken to guarantee the security of the 
lowland zone, the colony immediately went into deficit. The Romans 
originally intended to hold the Trent-Severn line, which incorporated 
all the more profitable agricultural areas. Then they discovered that this 
excluded most of the mineral wealth. For the next 20 years they pushed 
into the north and west, to find that this raised still more difficult 
frontier problems. Where was the frontier to lie? The Romans never 
found an answer. For 300 years over 10 per cent of all the Empire's 
land-forces were held down in Britain, perhaps the least significant of 
the colonies. This enormous expenditure could not be justified in 
economic terms. But how could it be reduced without imperilling the 



colony? Hadrian thought he could solve the dilemma by building 
fixed defences from Tyne to Solway, and thus economise on manpower. 
His wall involved shifting 2 million cubic yards of soil and subsoil, 
and absorbed over a million man-days : it was the greatest single arti- 
fact in the history of the Empire, and probably the most costly. But 
in the end it did not even save manpower. Moreover, the Romans 
could never decide whether it was in the right place. A generation later 
they built another wall on the Clyde-Forth line, and then abandoned it. 
Some of these northern fortifications absorbed a significant proportion 
of the entire resources of the Empire. The legionary fortress at Inchtuthil 
in north-east Scotland required seven miles of timber walls. When 
it was evacuated, unfinished, n tons of unused iron nails were buried 
there. All these materials had to be brought hundreds of miles up north. 
The Romans were constantly building bases in Britain which were soon 
abandoned, often before they were finished. (This was also a striking 
feature of the late British Empire.) 

In theory at least, Britain was supposed to pay for this huge military 
expenditure, and to support an army and administrative establishment 
which was up to 5 per cent of the total population.* But this cannot 
have been possible, even allowing for the fact that taxation kept 
British living standards at a permanently depressed level. The Romans 
lacked the technology to exploit Britain's mineral resources effectively. 
Lead was mined in considerable quantities for cupellation into silver, 
but it was of notoriously poor quality. Mining for tin, Britain's leading 
export in pre-Roman times, was held down until the Spanish mines 
ran out in the late Empire. Some corn was exported, under compulsion. 
But most British exports were luxuries: fine-quality woollen goods, 
two items of which figure on Diocletian's price-control list, semi- 
precious stones, and hunting dogs - Irish wolfhounds, bulldogs, spaniels 
and greyhounds. If we add all these together, they could not balance 
the flood of pottery, metalwork, manufactured goods, wines and luxury 
foods which poured in from the Continent to satisfy the needs of the 
Roman establishment and the British upper class. Roman Britain must 
have had an adverse balance of trade with the rest of the Empire 
throughout most of its existence, and trade was balanced by the one 
great 'invisible', the spending-power of the occupying army. 

With such a distorted economy, it is not surprising that the effort 

* Professor Sheppard S. Frere, in his Britannia, A History of Roman Britain (Oxford, 
1967), calculates that the population at the end of the second century AD was about 2 
million. But this is based on many arguable assumptions. It may have been as low as i 
million. From Domesday Book we can calculate that the figure in 1086 was about 1,100,000 
(excluding Wales), with much more land in cultivation. My view is that Roman Britain 
could not have supported a population much above the million mark. 



to Romanise Britain failed. The British, indeed, rejected Roman 
civilisation because they rejected its instrument: the city. To the 
Romans, the city was not just the centre of government and the 
economy but a living theatre in which all the rites of civilisation were 
enacted; planted in the wake of the legions, it underpinned their rule 
and acted as the conduit of their civilising mission. Through the cities 
they built, all Italy, Spain and France were Romanised, with a 
thoroughness which enabled the Romanic element to survive through 
centuries of political and economic confusion, and vast movements of 
population, as the dominant cultural pattern. But the Roman city was 
an expensive luxury: it was essentially parasitic. It was not so much 
an administrative and service centre for the rural economy as an 
artificial and exotic creation, an end in itself, which the rural economy 
had to support. It provided a range of amenities out of all proportion 
to its size: a city hall big enough to hold all free men and women for 
the transaction of public business; theatres and arenas where all 
could be entertained; baths which the entire public could use daily; 
temples for universal congregations. These cities were immensely costly 
to build, and they needed a fortune to maintain. 

The British economy could not support such a system, any more than 
it could support the occupying forces. Though the area of cultivation 
was being extended by the introduction of heavy ploughs and drainage, 
it is by no means sure that agricultural productivity was rising; it may 
even have fallen in Roman times. Roman farming technology under 
the Empire was stagnant, in some respects decadent. Roman estates 
in Britain may well have been less efficient than the small farms and 
holdings which they often displaced. The economic basis for a flourishing 
urban civilisation did not exist in the British colony. In any case the 
British did not want it. The building of Colchester was one of the main 
factors in producing the mass-revolt which Boudicca led, and the prin- 
cipal animus of the insurgents was directed against civic buildings 
there, and in London. Only the most vigorous pressure from the authori- 
ties got cities built at all. Thirty years after the first landing, Agricola 
was dismayed by the slow progress and launched a massive programme 
of construction. Half a century later Hadrian found it necessary to 
do the same. Cities were indeed built, but they did not flourish. Sil- 
chester, the only one to have been fully excavated, had some of the 
apparatus of Roman civilisation in the third and fourth centuries: 
administrative buildings, a market place, four pagan temples, a Christ- 
ian church, baths, an imperial post office, an amphitheatre. But it was 
small: there were only about 25 large houses, for tribal magnates; 25 
smaller ones for administrators and merchants; the rest of the inhabit- 



ants, about 2,500, lived without dignity. The conventional picture of 
gracious living in the Roman city does not apply to Britain.* 

Only in Bath were the highest levels of Roman sophistication 
reached. But Bath was little more than a resort, a rest and recreation 
centre for soldiers and expatriates. The wealthiest Britons no doubt 
patronised it, but it must have seemed to most of the natives, if they 
ever heard of it, as incongruous as the Indian hill-stations of the British 
Raj, or the leave-centres which the American forces have built in 
Asia. Some of the Roman-British cities were never finished. Only 
Lincoln had a sewerage system built to Roman standards. Leicester never 
got a regular water-supply. It is significant that very few Roman 
civilians could be tempted to settle in Britain; if anything, cultured 
Britons emigrated south. It was fashionable for Romans to sneer at the 
British for their savage ways; the Romans maintained they still wore 
woad, though they had long ceased to do so even in Caesar's day. These 
feelings were doubtless reciprocated. The British may have come to 
welcome the security Rome provided, but as a race they never accepted 
its civilisation. Most of them never learnt to speak Latin, except a few 
phrases for functional purposes ; the wealthy few who did so spoke it as a 
cultural supplement to their natural tongue, as the Tsarist aristocracy 
spoke French. When pressure from the authorities relaxed, the city- 
sites in Britain tended to degenerate into purely economic instruments. 
In the late Empire, Roman civilisation in Britain withered, and the 
cities acquired a pragmatic British flavour. There is ample evidence not 
so much of a discontinuity in city life but of a change in its function, 
from an artificial cultural creation to a viable, albeit austere, trading 
centre. City mansions were taken over by craftsmen; at St Albans the 
amphitheatre was turned into a market-place. City populations may 
even have increased, but the cities tended to serve the countryside, 
not vice versa. 

The only Roman institution the British welcomed was the country 
villa, though they invested it with characteristics of their own. The 
Roman upper class, and its Continental imitators, saw the villa as a 
place for rest from the cultural ardours of city life, especially in the 
summer. The British upper class reversed the system. They spent most 
of the year on their estates, living in villas which were working manor 
houses. f They went to the cities only for essential business; many of 
them did not even possess town houses. They formed a rural gentry, 

* The most recent estimates give maximum city populations as follows : London 
30,000, Colchester and St Albans 15,000 each, Lincoln and Gloucester 5,000. Most other 
towns were 3,000 or less. 

t We know of about 600 villas in Britain; there may have been about 800 in all. For 
their distribution see the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain (1956). 



and it is not absurd to project backwards into their attitudes a love of 
country life, especially hunting, an intimate connection with their 
tenant-farmers, a close attention to estate management, and a con- 
descending view of the city - all of which became salient characteristics 
of the more affluent offshore islanders in later ages. They took little 
interest in the Empire. They did not seek, at any rate they failed to ob- 
tain high positions in the imperial service. They were an upper class, but 
in no sense a ruling class. The later Empire was a centralised tyranny. 
Under the pressure of uncontrolled inflation it had changed from a 
constitutional republic into an oriental despotism, with the state 
directly controlling vast sectors of the economy. In such a desperate 
and unstable structure there was no place for colonial self-government. 
In their last decades as a colonial people, the British lived under 
military rule, such as it was. When the soldiers left, and they themselves 
expelled the administrators, there was no one trained to work the mach- 
inery of government. The British were a colonial people, abruptly 
deprived of the protection, the guidance, the political skills and the 
markets of an Empire; and they were surrounded by enemies. 

Yet an independent British society survived in the lowlands, or large 
parts of them, for a century and a half - a history longer than the Tudor 
dynasty, much longer than united Italy or Germany, almost as long as 
the United States. This phase in British history goes almost unregarded, 
because it is virtually unrecorded, but it was a considerable achieve- 
ment. The removal of the dead hand of the Roman Empire unleashed 
the dormant energies of the British people. The Empire had been 
economically stagnant by AD 250, 150 years before its military and 
political collapse : during this period it held itself together at the price 
of creating serfdom on the land, State capitalism in industry, and a 
theocratic totalitarianism in religion and politics. The removal of this 
festering incubus gave the British the chance to think and act for them- 
selves; it is not surprising that they embraced the free-will doctrines of 
Pelagianism, their native brand of Christianity - which eventually, by 
a process of insular transmutation, became Anglicanism. 

The tragedy of the post-colonial British was that they failed to 
achieve, or at any rate to maintain, their unity. Disunity has always 
been fatal to the offshore islanders, or whatever race. The reason why 
they were divided was that one remaining link to the Continent held, 
at least for a time Christianity, or rather the centralised Roman 
version of it. Roman Christianity did not exactly flourish in the ruins of 
the Empire, but it managed to hold most of its ground and even to 
devote a considerable portion of its energies to the extirpation of what 
it regarded as heresy. For some decades it kept watch on its outlying 



provinces. As we have seen, the British in 410 were divided into a 
nationalist-Pelagian party and an imperial-papal one ; the nationalists 
won, but on the basis of a compromise which observed the legal niceties 
of a world system. But the anti-nationalist faction remained active. 
In the decades after 410, as we know from Gildas's account, they twice 
appealed to the imperial authorities to restore the links with Rome. 
They got no response from the secular arm, but the Church rallied 
to the defence of its lost province. On at least two occasions before 450, 
clerico-military expeditions were sent from France under the leadership 
of fighting bishops, notably St Germanus of Auxerre. Germanus, who 
had been a senior military commander, led the British (we are told) to a 
victory over the heathen invaders, with 'Alleluia' as a war-cry. But his 
principal purpose in coming to Britain seems to have been to combat 
Pelagianism. Politics and religion were inseparable: he was in fact 
intervening in a civil war, on behalf of the Continental party. 

This internal conflict seems to have continued throughout the history 
of the independent British state, and was indeed the chief cause of its 
extinction. Direct contact with Rome was lost some time after 455, 
but both orthodox Christianity and Pelagianism continued to fight for 
supremacy over the British people. The sources are fragmentary, 
contradictory, always suspect for one reason or another; some are lost 
entirely, though we can detect distant echoes of them in the works of 
twelfth-century writers such as William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey 
of Monmouth. Piecing together these scattered clues, it is possible to 
reconstruct a history of the period which makes sense. By the mid- 
fifth century, when the Saxon raids began to turn into a mass migration, 
lowland Britain had become a confederation of regional kingdoms, 
with a tendency to acknowledge a single powerful king as overlord 
(a practice later transmuted into the English institution of the para- 
mount ruler, or bretwalda). This leader was called the Vortigern, and 
in the latter part of the century his name was Ambrosius Aurelianus. 
Ambrosius was probably an orthodox Christian, with marked Contin- 
ental leanings, 'the last of the Romans' as he is called. One of his 
army commanders, from a West Country landed family, was called 
Artorius, or Arthur, a Roman name given as a token of the family's 
imperial allegiance. Arthur was born about 475 and, shortly after the 
turn of the century, when Ambrosius died, succeeded him as the senior 
military commander. He fought the invaders as the general, and later 
as the overlord, of the British kings. Using disciplined units of armoured 
troops, he was highly successful: he won 12 engagements in various 
parts of lowland Britain, culminating in the battle, or siege, of Badon in 
516, in which a Saxon army of about 900 men was annihilated. This 



victory was followed by a reverse migration of many of the Germanic 

Some 20 years later, probably in 537, Arthur's kingdom collapsed, 
and he himself was killed in the course of a civil war. This was the pre- 
lude to the final triumph of the Germanic settlers in lowland Britain. 
What was the civil war about? It certainly had a religious flavour. 
Significantly, Gildas, though he refers to these internal disputes, does 
not mention Arthur; and this looks like a deliberate omission, indeed a 
suppression. Gildas was not writing history, but a politico-religious 
diatribe, a work of propaganda and exhortation. His life and Arthur's 
overlapped, for Gildas died about 570. According to his biographer, 
Gildas had a dispute with Arthur, whom he hated. Gildas was, of course, 
a vigorous exponent of main-line Christianity, as he conceived it (for 
contact with Rome had been lost). It seems probable that Arthur, in the 
course of his career as the paramount British leader, had become a 
convert to the insular nationalism of which the Pelagian doctrines 
formed the theoretical basis. The fact that Arthur carried into battle 
the emblem of the Virgin Mary would have little weight with Gildas, 
to whom Arthur was not only a heretic but a renegade. It may be that 
Arthur's wife, or queen, remained orthodox; there is a tradition that 
Arthur went to seek her at Glastonbury, where she found refuge, or 
possibly imprisonment with the monks. Perhaps he was killed there, or 
near by; he may even be buried there. But his career seems to suggest 
that the two factions in lowland Britain were still evenly balanced; 
too evenly balanced, indeed, for either to subdue the other, and 
together they brought the state to ruin.* 

The Arthurian traditions survived and proliferated in the Celtic 
fringes of Britain. They were of no interest to the English, but they 
quickly captured the imagination of the Normans - who felt, indeed, 
some affinity with the Celts in their common hostility to the English. 
The Normans took the Arthurian legends to the Continent. Thanks to 

aua_. -*_,. : " i ,.,-,- - , _ Q . ...._, 

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a literary propagandist of genius, and by a 
delicious series of ironies, Arthur became England's first great cultural 
export. Carried forward on a wave of anti-French sentiment, Arthur, as 
the King of Romance, displaced the far more solid and authenticated 
Charlemagne until the end of the Middle Ages. He and his knights 
made their Continental debut on the north doorway of Modena Cathed- 
ral, certainly not later than 1120. He appeared in every kind of work 

* Arthur may have been a violent and brutal man; it is possible his name signifies 
'bearish'. Recent studies of Arthur, written for the general reader, include Geoffrey 
Ashe: From Caesar to Arthur (London, 1960), and Christopher Hibbert: The Search for 
King A rthur (London , 1 970) . 



of art in France, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Scandinavia and Switzer- 
land, in Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Sicily. The crusaders brought him 
to Beirut and western Asia. Every generation seemed to have something 
circle of the garter, a form of male fellowship widely imitated even by 
the English middle classes in the later Middle Ages, which evolved into 
the characteristic English institution of the club. His knights found a 
place in Dante, and he himself, superbly cast in bronze by Diirer, 
helps to guard the tomb of the Emperor Maximilian in Innsbruck. 
Arthur had proved even more vigorous in death than in life. The Roman 
Church strongly and repeatedly condemned Round Tables; perhaps it 
had a long memory; perhaps it instinctively knew that Arthur was a 
heretic. At any rate, it was to the Arthurian legends, and in particular 
to the belief that Arthur had ruled a British empire, casting off allegi- 
ance to Rome, that Henry vui turned in search of historical ammuni- 
tion to fire at the Pope. 

But Arthur's real achievement was that he delayed, indeed for a time 
reversed, the progress of Germanic settlement. This had important 
consequences, for it prevented the British from being exterminated in, 
or wholly expelled from, the lowland area. It is true that British cul- 
ture disappeared almost completely. As a colonial people they had re- 
jected the civilisation of Rome, but in the centuries of subjection 
they had lost much of their indigenous culture, for their upper class 
had been unable to patronise it, and they had been forced to accept 
an alien religion; their post-colonial history had been too brief, and 
troubled, to permit the development, or re-emergence, of a powerful 
life-style of their own. The culture the Germanic settlers brought with 
them was rustic and humble but immensely pervasive. Hence the native 
population accepted the manners of its conquerors, their laws and cus- 
toms, habits and predilections, political organisation and methods of 
warfare, religion, arts, crafts and attitudes, most of all their economic 
ways and structures. In Gaul names based on Gallo-Roman estates 
remain even today one of the commonest elements in the village names 
of France. In Britain, even in Kent where there were other elements of 
continuity, estate names and boundaries disappeared completely. There 
was in time a complete break with the agricultural past. The manors of 
late-Saxon England have no demonstrable connection with the Roman- 
British past. All the same, large numbers of the British survived, 
though generally at the lowest levels of society. They lived on in the 
uplands, forests and marshes. Their existence even leaves some faint 
tracings. In the Humber area and Wessex, for instance, some of their 
personal names are found. A score or more can be detected in Domesday 



Book seven centuries later. One Saxon royal house seems to have inter- 
married with them, on more than one occasion, an example which 
humbler Saxons would have followed. The laws of Ine and Alfred gave 
recognition to a distinctive 'Welsh' that is, British class in the social 
system : not only Welsh slaves but Welshmen holding up to five hides, 
with wergilds of 600 shillings, and three other categories of Welsh 
freemen. Most of the British became rural slaves, and lost all sense of 
cultural and racial identity. But they nevertheless contributed to the 
composition of the English people; they help to explain why the English 
became what they are; they served as a human bridge between the 
remote past and the future of England. 


Unity, Stability, 

[600- 1 1 54] 

IN the autumn of the year 663 a remarkable group of men and 
women assembled at Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire to take a decision 
of momentous importance for the future of England. English 
society was still in its early stages of development; the only available 
and systematic machine through which literacy could be spread and 
civilisation advanced was the Church; it was the supreme instrument of 
de-tribalisation. But the question was: which Church? For there were, 
in effect, two. The Celtic Church of Scotland, Ireland and Wales had 
pursued a course of separate development since it had lost contact 
with Rome after 455. It observed a different date for Easter; it had its 
own form of tonsure, and many other practices. More important, it 
had a wholly different system of organisation, based on rural monas- 
teries rather than urban bishoprics. Its outlook was ascetic, other- 
worldly, anti-hierarchical, contemptuous of the temporalities of 
religion. It preferred stone cabins to great basilicas, and self-denial to 
triumphant ritual. It was still permeated by the insularity of Pelagian- 
ism, and took its colouring from the lands and peoples which nourished 

On the other hand there was the Church of Rome, representing the 
universaUst order of the late Empire, its bishoprics based on the old 
city and provincial administration, radiating from the ultimate author- 
ity of the eternal city itself, its ceremonies and buildings and vestments 
echoing imperial grandeur, its hierarchy and discipline upholding the 
principles of a world theocracy, with power finally resting in the hands 
of one man, the vicar of the Christ-Emperor. The Roman Church still 
spoke for the Empire. Britain had cut itself off from the Empire 250 
years before, but on the Continent the mainland rump had absorbed 
the Germanic invasions, and imposed its civilisation and languages 
upon the settlers it had received; only in the last decade or two had its 
soft underbelly, in the Mediterranean, been ripped asunder by the new 
Oriental power-religion of Mohammedanism. In Merovingian Gaul, the 
urban civilisation of Rome, dominated by romance-speaking peoples, 
was still the basis of society. It was not then unthinkable that the 
Christian Western Empire could be restored in all its plenitude, and 
Britain, its lost province, rejoined to it. 

Lowland Britain, now settled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and in- 
creasingly called England by its inhabitants, thus became an ideological 



battlefield. If Celtic Christianity triumphed, the Channel must inevitably 
become a religious and cultural barrier, as it was already a political 
and military one. The whole of Britain would, in effect, cease to be 
part of Europe. On the other hand, if Roman Christianity became 
established there, the Celtic world could not survive alone, but would be 
increasingly pulled into the European pattern. The actual issue to be 
decided at Whitby was the date of Easter; but all else flowed from the 
verdict. Rome had put out a tentacle to England 70 years before : an 
expedition under Augustine to set up two Christian provinces, at 
London and York, on the old imperial model. It had met with moderate 
success and many setbacks; its headquarters had, in fact, been estab- 
lished at Canterbury, the only city-site in Britain where continuity had 
been maintained into the English age. The Roman attempt to convert 
Northumbria had ended in disaster; and Christianity had finally been 
established there from lona, the headquarters of Celtic Christianity. 
In many parts Of England, Celtic and Roman missionaries were now 
coming up against each other, as Englishmen and Frenchmen were to 
meet in the heart of Africa, in the last decades of the nineteenth 

The situation was confused, and the forces at Whitby evenly bal- 
anced. The Abbess Hilda herself was a Celtic Christian; so were her 
cousin Oswui, the King, and Colman, the chief bishop of the area; 
indeed the last had been a disciple of the original Celtic missionary, 
St Aidan, and he acted as spokesman for the Celtic case. But the inter- 
nationalist party was also strong. It included the deacon James, a direct 
link with the original Augustinian mission, Bishop Agilbert from 
Wessex, who was to end his life as Bishop of Paris, and the King's own 
son and heir. Its spokesman was Wilfred, a young, ruthless and en- 
thusiastic Romanist, who had spent five years in Italy and Gaul, and 
who was now in charge of a cadre of Romanists at Ripon. The King pre- 
sided at the debate, and eventually gave his decision for Rome. The 
arguments have come down to us only through Romanist sources, and 
they are dressed up in the technical language of theological controversy. 
But what seems to have convinced the King was Wilfred's passionate 
contention that England, an obscure and remote island, could not cut 
herself off from the very sources of European civilisation and progress ; 
she would thereby condemn herself to stagnation and impotence. The 
King took what was, in essence, a secular decision: the links to the 
Continent must be maintained. 

Yet the decision was a very English one: it was not clear cut, it was 
not carried through to its logical conclusions, it was heavily qualified, 
and left its interpretation and enforcement to be shaped by local con- 



ditions. It was a constructive compromise; some would say a muddle, 
but a muddle of the type the English are adept at contriving for their 
own purposes. Bishop Colman returned to lona defeated. But Celtic 
Christianity remained in the north, and was quietly absorbed into a 
new English pattern. Colman's abbey of Lindisfarne flourished. St 
Cuthbert, himself taught by one of Aidan's original pupils, became the 
most influential figure in the English Church. The Roman pattern was 
formally adopted, eventually throughout England - and the Celtic 
Church in time conformed to it. Rome sent important international 
figures to England to reinforce what it thought a victory: Theodore 
from Tarsus, and Adrian from North Africa. But the Church which 
emerged was essentially sui generis, a Church of England which took 
from the Celtic world and from Rome certain elements which it blended 
into a national composition with a new flavour of its own. The plans 
of Rome for the structure of the English provinces were never carried 
out in full; a much more haphazard organisation grew up. 

Wilfred's attempt to recreate a Roman Christian State in England 
was thus thwarted. His contemporary, Cuthbert, was universally 
venerated; but Wilfred made himself thoroughly disliked, and was 
twice expelled from the Northumbrian court. He was too deeply imbued 
with the Continental tradition for the English taste. His emphasis on 
the temporalities was too marked. He became a notorious pluralist, 
amassed great wealth, was attended by a huge retinue, and sought to 
play a dominant role in secular as well as Church affairs. When defied, 
he introduced the dangerous practice of appealing to Rome : he was the 
first of the great clerical litigants, and his activities kept the English 
Church in forensic uproar for most of his life. True, his energy was 
enormous; he converted the heathen of the Frisian coast, Sussex and 
the Isle of Wight; he established Christianity on a permanent basis in 
Mercia; he used his money to build fine churches and introduce a 
splendid ceremonial. But his alien enthusiasms were distasteful to the 
English, clergy and laity alike ; even the old Greek Archbishop Theodore 
realised that Wilfred's extremism was unsuited to an English context. 
Despite his force and ability, Wilfred never became master of the 
English Church, and his influence was negligible. Thanks to the vigor- 
ous propaganda of his disciple and biographer, Eddius Stephanus, he 
was canonised; but, unlike Cuthbert, he never became an object of 
popular veneration. He remains an outstanding example of the minority 
tradition of Continentalism which flows through English history. 

Seventy years, almost exactly, after the Synod of Whitby, the 
historian Bede sat down to write a long and thoughtful letter to his 
pupil Egbert, now Archbishop of York. In the interval, the constructive 



compromise of Whitby, blending Celtic and Roman elements into the 
main-stream of English development, had produced an extraordinary 
flowering of culture in north-east England; Bede, in his person and in 
his work, epitomised its achievement. He was a new phenomenon - a 
civilised Englishman - and he is worth examining at some length. He 
had the salient qualities of the new English Church : tolerance, modera- 
tion, exactitude in scholarship, a high regard for truth, an appropriate 
degree of unworldliness leavened by common sense. His life was fortun- 
ate. The rise of a strong Northumbrian Kingdom, coinciding with the 
settlement of the Church's internal disputes, produced a rapid growth 
there of monasticism on the Roman model, existing side by side with 
older Celtic houses such as Lindisfarne. In 674 Benedict Biscop, Abbot 
of St Peter's in Canterbury, founded a Roman monastery at Wear- 
mouth, and in the next decade a sister establishment at Jarrow. He 
brought the nucleus of a library from Rome, and his successor added to 
it; in Bede's day it was one of the finest collections in north-west 
Europe. At its height, the twin foundation housed over 600 monks, 
many of them distinguished scholars, artists and craftsmen. Bede came 
there at the age of seven, an orphan of good family, and spent his 
entire life at Jarrow. It was a very insular existence; Bede left the 
monastery only twice, once to go to York and once to pay a fraternal 
visit to Lindisfarne, where his name was written in the Liber Vitae. 
But the culture of the house was cosmopolitan. Relations with Lindis- 
farne were friendly ; Bede himself wrote a remarkable life of its honoured 
son, Cuthbert. There were frequent contacts with Gaul and Rome, and a 
constant stream of visitors. Bede was thus the beneficiary of both 
Latin and Celtic cultures, and he had by inheritance a third, English. 
He wrote a pure and simple Latin, understood Greek and even a little 
Hebrew. Through books he absorbed virtually all the knowledge 
then available in western Europe; and his own writings cover a vast 

Most of Bede's time was devoted to annotating the scriptures and 
translating sacred texts into English; but he also wrote biographies, 
history, hymns, epigrams, homilies, and grammatical and scientific 
treatises. Bede was fascinated by chronology, and wrote two surveys of 
the subject, the second and more important being his De Temporum 
Ratione, finished in 725. This adopted the method, first developed by 
Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, of calculating year dates from 
the Incarnation. The practice was virtually unknown in western 
Europe; it was first heard of in England when Wilfred explained it at 
Whitby. But not until Bede's book was circulated did the English 
accept the new system. His manuscript was soon taken to the Continent, 



where it was copied and recopied in scores of religious houses; thus it 
was Bede who popularised the modern method of dating in the West. 
Indeed all his works travelled abroad: he was the first scholar from 
Britain since Pelagius to have an impact on the world outside.* 

Yet Bede's real importance was in helping to create a specific English 
consciousness. There was in him a deep, if gentle and unassertive, 
strain of patriotism and racial pride ; he venerated the royal house of 
Northumbria and its achievements; he loved the English people and 
their language; and he had an overwhelming affection for their Church, 
now a century old. All these found expression infos Ecclesiastical History 
of the English People, which he completed about 731 It is perhaps the 
most remarkable work of the entire Dark Ages ; in some ways it is a 
finer piece of scientific history than anything produced in the Ancient 
World. Bede not only possessed the critical faculties of a professional 
historian, he took great pains to exercise them. He understood the 
nature of evidence, the evaluation of sources, and the crucial importance 
of original documents. He sent to Rome for copies of letters in the papal 
archives, and reproduced them. He searched the library for relevant 
material and used it in a selective and judicious spirit. He got in- 
formation from all over England, and interviewed old men who had 
taken part in the events he described; he tapped local and family 
traditions. His account is thus lit by flashes of colour and detail which 
only eyewitnesses could have supplied. Bede had the true humility of 
the scholar whose only object is the truth. He submitted his drafts to 
his informants, such as King Ceolwulf, and incorporated their factual 
corrections. He makes it clear to the reader that there are important 
lacunae in his materials, and indicates plainly when his statements rest on 
dubious authority. Bede takes the reader into his confidence, and 
inspires confidence in return. Succeeding generations of Englishmen, 
especially after Alfred had the text translated into English, felt strongly 
that here was the authentic record of their past, a true and fair 

* But Bede has had a poor deal from the English. Owing to lack of English pressure, 
Rome did not recognise him as a saint until 1899 ; and even today he is honoured with the 
grotesque title of 'Venerable*, which is also used indiscriminately of Anglican arch- 
deacons while they are still alive. Bede met many posthumous misfortunes. Early in the 
eleventh century his bones were removed from Jarrow by a professional relic-thief called 
Father Alfred, and taken to Durham. They were rediscovered in 1104 in the coffin of 
St Cuthbert, and placed in a casket of gold and silver ; but in 1541 they were scattered by 
an ignorant and rapacious reformer. After the fall of the Old English State, his works 
were more honoured on the Continent than in his own country ; he was first printed in 
Strasbourg and Milan (1473). Though Bede was the epitome of moderate Anglicanism, he 
was foolishly classified by the English Reformers as an obscure Romanist. Collected 
editions of his works were printed in Paris (1544-5), Basle (1563) and Cologne (1612); 
England had to wait until 1843-4. But he has recently been made the object of a fine 
study, Peter Hunter-Blair: The World of Bede (London, 1970). 



account of the events that had made England and the English what 
they were.* 

Moreover, Bede invests his narrative and analysis with his own 
peculiar virtues. The English, he felt, were capable of great endeavour, 
but also liable to folly. His history is the story of what had been, but 
also of what might be, if the English learned to conquer their weaknesses 
and develop their strengths. Bede was a good as well as a great man, and 
a recognisable human character. We are touched when, at the end of his 
masterpiece, he diffidently inserts some scanty facts about his own life, 
and lists the books he has written. He was capable of anger: when 
brazenly accused of heretical opinions in one of his chronological 
treatises, he refers to his critics, in a letter intended to be read by his 
archbishop, as 'drunken rustics'. But he was essentially mild and 
unassuming. He held no high office, we may be sure, entirely by his own 
choice. He was kind and tolerant by nature; his instincts and training 
as a historian led him always to see both sides of the case. His beloved 
Northumbrians, he said, were wrong to attack the Irish: it was a 
deplorable act of aggression. His message was one of peace and compro- 
mise. Both the Celtic and the Roman Churches had merits. A great 
organisation like the Church must be wide enough to contain a Cuthbert 
as well as a Wilfred. Even a heretic was capable of virtue, and possessed 
rights. Though a monk himself, Bede was remarkably free from the 
aggressive self-esteem of his order: he not only recognised but advanced 
the proper claims of the secular clergy and the hierarchy. Strong 
opinions must be reconciled; argument must replace force, and itself 
be resolved by compromise. Only thus would civilisation be advanced. 
We can well believe Bede was loved by those who knew him. The famous 
account, by his pupil Cuthbert, of his last hours propped up in bed, 
dictating the final lines of his translation of St John's Gospel, may be an 
edifying invention, but it carries conviction all the same. It was in 
Bede's character to urge his scribe repeatedly to 'write faster', thereby 
rebuking those modern historians who fear to commit themselves to 
paper; and it was in character, too, to distribute his little stock of 
personal possessions - incense, writing paper - to the young monks 
clustered in his cell. 

But Bede was not just a mild old scholar. He was a shrewd observer 
of contemporary events; he kept himself exceptionally well-informed; 
and he did not hesitate to express decided views on what was going on. 

* Bede was the first person to think of himself as an Englishman. His writings trans- 
cend the tribal divisions and introduce the concept of 'England' as a political society, 
and 'the English' as a race. See the lecture by J. D, A. Ogilvy: The Place of Wearmouth 
and J arrow in Western Cultural History (Jarrow, 1968). 



When he sat down to write his long letter to Archbishop Egbert he 
felt he was nearing the end of his life, and what he wrote is an ecclesias- 
tical and political testament of an old and wise historian, surveying the 
society he loved - and feared for. After giving the archbishop much 
sound, detailed and practical advice about the management of the 
northern province, Bede went on to express grave concern about certain 
developments in Northumbria. The Church had flourished mightily 
in its first century in England; and secular patronage of monasticism 
had enabled civilisation to flower. But there were in this process seeds 
of decay. Too many pseudo-monasteries, he said, were being created 
by the leading families and royal officials, with the object of exempting 
their lands from taxes and services to the State. This was not only 
tax-evasion but socially destructive. It was bad for the Church, for 
such monasteries brought it into disrepute, but even worse for the 
State, for young men needed to form the cadres of the army were unable 
to get land and raise families, and were going elsewhere in search of it. 
Bede's letter gives us a valuable insight into the reasons for the decline 
of the Northumbrian kingdom. It testifies to his belief that the interests 
of Church and State, properly conceived, were the same - to press one 
at the expense of the other would be fatal to both. Bede understood that 
the strength of Old English society rested on the ability of Church and 
State to work in the closest harmony. The State upheld the doctrines, 
and ensured the material prosperity, of the Church; equally the Church 
must reinforce the authority and efficiency of the State: that way lay 
progress for society as a whole. 

And of course Bede was right. England was the first society to create a 
strong and civilised central authority on a permanent basis; it lies at 
the root of such felicity as this country has enjoyed throughout its 
history. It was what the post-colonial state of the British so con- 
spicuously lacked; it was what the English were eventually able to create 
- so that William I inherited the oldest and strongest monarchical state 
in Europe; and it was made possible because a national Church, 
identifying itself with the public interest, underwrote the institution 
of popular monarchy. But Bede, with his historian's long perspective, 
was also aware that the process was far from complete. He recognised 
the fragility of his own country; and, perhaps imperfectly, he saw 
that the systematic exploitation of landed resources was the key to 
irreversible progress. 

We come here to a little-understood point about the origins of English 
society. Looking back on English history from the last decades of the 
twentieth century, we lay too much stress on the development of sea- 
power, and maritime commerce, as the dynamic of English progress. 



England's use of the sea to acquire wealth, power and influence has 
indeed been unique. But the strength of England, on which this expan- 
sion was based, lay in the land, and in the creation of a political and 
social system geared to agricultural advance. As a pre-colonial society, 
lowland Britain had made spectacular agricultural progress in the 
century before the Roman occupation. Under colonisation, that pro- 
gress had been slowed down, halted, perhaps even reversed, because 
Britain was attached to an empire which was city-orientated; an 
empire unable to develop the technological and economic advantages 
of a city culture, and which financed its security and its civilisation 
from a stagnant and wasteful use of the land. Freed from the incubus 
of empire, the peoples of lowland Britain had a fresh opportunity to 
pursue the natural development of its resources. The Celtic British 
had rejected the Roman city-concept. They did not like cities, but used 
them for functional purposes. The new settlers from Germany and 
Denmark positively hated them. Except in Kent, where the settlers 
included elements from Frisia and Prankish territories touched by 
Roman influence, there was no continuity in city life. The English came 
from a race of forest-dwellers; their technology was the axe, the ox 
and the heavy plough. Resuming the work of the Belgic settlers - to 
whom they were akin - they settled in the river valleys and took up the 
task of exploiting the rich lowland soil. 

But England in Bede's day was still caught in the offshore current of 
an empire which took centuries to die. Until the Arabs demolished its 
southern structure, and closed the Mediterranean to Roman Christian 
commerce, England was still to a significant degree part of a 
Continental, maritime economic system. The English settlers arrived 
here in open, oared ships, without masts and sails, or the keels which 
made these possible. These voyages took anything up to two months. 
The view that they then settled down exclusively to agricultural 
development is false. Wealth and state power could be created much 
more swiftly by the use of the sea, and by the trade carried on it. 
Almost exactly ten years before the Synod of Whitby met, the mourners 
of a pagan king of East Anglia, using an elaborate system of log 
rollers, dragged up from a creek near Sutton Hoo a great ship which 
they transformed into a cenotaph for their chief. His body was lost, at 
sea or in battle, but they placed in the ship before they covered it 
with sand and earth, a selection of his possessions. These included a 
monarchical standard (of a type Bede saw carried before the North- 
umbrian kings), a carved stone sceptre, and an abundance of gold and 
silver artifacts. One was a great silver dish from Byzantium, with an 
emperor's date-stamp; there were others of foreign manufacture, 



from a variety of places; foreign coins; and some beautiful English 
pieces, of great weight and elaboration. When the hoard was uncovered 
in 1939, an entirely new light was shed on English kingship and society 
in the mid-seventh century. The progress of the English had been much 
more rapid and spectacular than anyone had hitherto thought possible. 
But what has only recently been appreciated is that such regional 
societies were the products essentially of sea-power and a sea-culture.* 
They owed their wealth and culture essentially to maritime trade ; they 
were still, economically, part of a decaying Continental system, the 
sub-Roman empire of the West, with its offshoots into the Mediter- 
ranean. What was true of East Anglia was true also of Kent, of the 
kingdoms of the south coast and the Thames valley, still more perhaps 
of Northumbria. The civilisation in which Bede flourished owed its 
dynamic - because it owed its communications, its contacts, its wealth - 
to the sea. Only when the Roman-style economy finally dissolved, in 
the aftermath of the Arab conquests, did the English shift their econo- 
mic axis inland, and find their true basis for development in the ex- 
ploitation of the land. 

In 795 King Offa of Mercia received an unpleasant letter from the 
Emperor Charlemagne, as he called himself. These two men were each 
supreme in their own regions, paramount kings, and they corresponded 
on a level of solemn equality, though Offa had to insist rather more 
sharply on his dignity than Charles. They had engaged in intermittent 
trade-war, shutting up their ports to each other's ships. Now Charles 
summarised the matter: if the English complained about the stones 
sent from France (probably from Tournai, for use in church fonts), 
then he had an equal right to complain of the shortness of the cloaks 
sent from England. Charles, as we know from another source, hated 
these mini-cloaks. They were too short, he said, to cover him in bed, or 
to protect him from the rain when riding, and they were a nuisance 
when he went to the lavatory. What is so striking about this dispute 
is the evidence it provides of the poverty of the economic contacts 
between these two major states. Maritime trade had ceased to play a 
significant role in either. The old Roman economic system had broken 
up, and nothing had replaced it. Societies were turning inward, to the 
land; the instrument of economic progress - indeed of all progress - had 
changed from the sea- and river-port to the manorial estate. This 

* The best recent survey, for the general reader, of the Sutton Hoo finds and their 
significance is Charles Green: Sutton Hoo, the Excavation of a Royal Ship Burial (London, 



process was far more significant in England, cut off from the rest of the 
Continent by water, than anywhere else. It intensified the isolation, and 
made the development of distinctive national characteristics much 
more profound, and rapid. Power shifted from the littoral societies of the 
east and south and became balanced in the midlands. It is to Mercia, 
in the heart of England, that we owe the true origins of the nation, its 
institutions, its language and its attitude to public life. 

The change was clearly marked by a reconstruction of the monetary 

system. England moved from a gold to a silver standard. This is 

evidence not so much of declining wealth, but of growing common 

sense. Gold was the exchange-medium of the international merchant, 

silver of the progressive fanner. Gold coins had been minted in England 

in pre-colonial times ; local minting had been resumed in the late seventh 

century; but this had been a function of a littoral economy, the last 

stigma of post-colonial status, what we would now call neo-colonialism. 

The economic independence of the new English State was symbolised 

about 780, when Offa issued a regular silver penny, at a standardised 

weight of 22 grammes. The name was ancient, of unknown origin. But 

the new currency was, from the start, essentially modern in concept and 

execution. Offa's penny was to hold its quality for 500 years. It was the 

basis of all later improvements. In the tenth century, Edwin of Wessex 

adopted the device of calling in and re-issuing all coins at regular 

intervals; foreign coin was melted down and re-struck; mints were 

farmed to professional moneyers, but they were obliged to put their 

names on the reverse, and penalties for debasement were heavy and 

ruthlessly enforced. Thus England developed a currency which the most 

powerful of Roman emperors would have envied. It became a recognised 

medium of exchange from Scandinavia to the Balkans, and a ubiquitous, 

ocular testimony to the stability and wealth of the English state. A 

puritanical devotion to their currency has always been a salient feature 

of the English public consciousness. 

Yet in one sense this strong currency was merely the consequence of 
two even more deep-rooted English characteristics: the use of the land 
as the ultimate index of wealth and status, and a marked preference 
for strong, efficient and honest government. By creating a state which 
gave them expression, Offa laid the foundations of English public life. 
It is a tragedy we know so little about him as a man; modern England 
probably owes more to him than to any other individual. But of course 
he built on earlier foundations. England was born of a fortunate mar- 
riage between geography and race, between fertile lowland soil, and 
hard-working Germanic immigrants. England created the English; it 
was the land which shaped the people. Though well aware of their 



Germanic history and traditions, the English settlers were bound much 
more firmly to the soil they acquired. Their arrival was framed in 
heroic legend, but this was background and entertainment; the reality 
of their lives was dominated by farming. Theirs was essentially an 
agricultural, not a military, conquest. When the Normans came, half 
a millennium later, they remarked that 'the English thought of nothing 
so much as the cultivation of their lands 5 . Their forebears had been 
industrious and energetic farmers in Germany. Now, in England, the 
opportunities which the countryside gave them were eagerly seized. 
The farming patterns of the Britons were largely rejected. They marked 
out their own fields and villages, established their own methods of 
communal production. The plough-team of up to eight oxen was the 
biggest single factor in the shaping of Old English society, for it was 
crucial to their methods. The salient feature was the exploitation of 
huge open fields, often of a hundred acres, on a social basis. The low- 
land soils demanded a heavy plough and a powerful team to pull it. Yet 
few men possessed a whole team ; equally, a team, to reach its maximum 
efficiency, required vast fields to be ploughed in strips. Thus the 
operational needs of the team became the units of measurement, of 
ownership, of wealth. An acre was what one family could plough in a day, 
a hide the area that gave them work, and livelihood, for a year. Plough- 
ing dictated the need for huge fields; this in turn meant a measure 
of communal effort, for the phases of the agricultural cycle had to be 
coordinated and jointly determined. But within this communal 
structure, individual ownership, rights and wealth were fiercely upheld 
and narrowly calculated. A man's land, and his share of the crops, 
depended on his contribution in working capital and labour; he might 
supply a plough, or a team, or both, or a share of either; and he drew 
his rewards accordingly. His obligations embraced many tasks besides 
ploughing, and there were strict penalties for failure to discharge them, 
as the earliest laws make plain. 

It was a mixed economy: but the element of private ownership was 
there by choice, that of communal effort only by necessity: a typically 
English approach. There were many and increasing gradations of wealth. 
At one end of the social scale there was a large slave class, composed 
initially of Britons, but augmented by convicts, captives, human 
purchase and degradation. Even peasant farmers, with their single hide 
of land, owned slaves; like oxen they were part of a man's working 
capital. A man was free by virtue of his ownership of land; nothing 
else mattered. A landowner was entitled a thegn if he owned five hides 
or more; no matter how rich he was (except in the case of sea-going 
merchants) he could not claim rank 'unless he hath the land'. The 



lord of the village, or the manor, which were often coterminous, 
was by virtue of his estate the symbol of ownership, the guarantor of 
protection, the chief arbiter of opinion (and so of justice), and 
the agent of authority. Often the village bore his name, and does 
so to this day. Ownership of land was the key to the legal system, 
for it determined both the nature of crime and the methods of law- 

Old English society was preoccupied with two categories of offences, 
both with agricultural roots: murders and blood-feuds arising over 
tenure and boundary-disputes, and the theft of cattle. The first was 
settled by the payment of wergilds which varied with ownership: 100 
shillings for a free farmer, equivalent to the 100 oxen he was supposed 
to be worth ; 600 shillings for the landed gentry. There were intermediate 
categories and local variations, but the principle of compensation 
was always related to notional concepts of landed worth. The determina- 
tion of guilt, in both categories, rested on a man's oath, whose value, 
again, was related to notional concepts of his agricultural status 
and property. If a man's oath were not equal to the magnitude of the 
charge, others had to swear for him, and his accusers would do the same ; 
elaborate computations were made of the value of conflicting testimony 
to determine the verdict: we come across phrases like 'an oath a 
pound in value' and 'let him deny it with an oath of three twelves'. 
The system was thus squarely based on popular concepts of natural 
justice, for what could be more obviously fair than that a man should 
rest his case on the sworn evidence of people who knew him, were in a 
position to watch his daily movements, and whose desire to uphold local 
stability and order was ipso facto guaranteed by their ownership of 
property in the district ? Such a realistic concept, moreover, ensured 
that the social system remained flexible and never acquired the rigidity 
of caste: judicial worth, and therefore status, had to be determined 
not by birth but by current landed possessions. There was at the heart 
of Old English society a tremendous dynamic to get on by exploit- 
ing the land, and all institutions were geared to keep this dynamic 

Yet the real genius of the English consisted in harnessing this dy- 
namic to the functions of the State. How could this self-regulating 
structure of village life, with its built-in economic impetus, be repro- 
duced at national level? It was at this point that the English Church, 
with its close identification with the secular authorities, made a decisive 
contribution. The Church had inherited from the Roman Empire 
instruments which Germanic society conspicuously lacked: the ability 
to construct an ordered and regular hierarchy of command, and operate 

4 6 


within its limits; not only literacy, but written law and documented 
transactions, particularly the land-deed; the impulse to delve below 
habitual custom to first principles; and a cosmopolitanism which ac- 
celerated the flow of ideas. The Celtic Church lacked these gifts; thus 
the Whitby decision gave England something unobtainable from native 
intellectual resources. It is no accident that the administrative develop- 
ments in Mercia followed the missionary activities there of Wilfred, the 
ablest of the Romanists. The Church became the principal instrument of 
civil government; the bishops were the King's chief advisers, his chapel 
the centre of administration and record-office, his chaplains civil 
servants as well as spiritual ministers. The Church codified the law, and 
put it in writing. Even before the Church came, English society was 
developing a definite structure: but the Church supplied the literate 
manpower and expertise to build a State machine. 

We see the process at work in eighth-century Mercia. The key to all 
State authority is finance, the means to purchase the power of com- 
pulsion. This, in turn, depends on the regular collection of adequate 
taxes. And taxes require a currency realistically related to the working 
of the economy. Offa's establishment of a silver-standard coinage as 
the regular medium of exchange between farmers was thus the first 
in a long chain of events which built up a mighty state. But taxes must 
not merely be imposed; they must be seen to be justly imposed. Their 
efficient, comprehensive and equitable collection is the foundation of 
healthy and stable government. Such a system demands knowledge 
and documentation. The English grasped this very early in their history, 
and it has remained for them a central preoccupation. The foundation 
was laid in eighth-century Mercia in a document known as the Tribal 
Hideage; it sets down the number of hides subject to tax in every 
province of the state.* Without an accurate basis of assessment, any tax 
is a selective tyranny, and its collection incompatible with the growth 
of free institutions and of government by consent. Such records are 
difficult to compile; it was here that the help of the Church was vital. 
The Hideage was the first giant step towards modern government. It 
contained, in embryo, the concept of a territorial pyramid: from the 
village to a district of a hundred hides, from hundreds to shires, from 

* It was very likely based on earlier models, since the bretwalda was an overlord who 
exacted tribute from vassal kingdoms, assessing their liability according to an overall 
system. Presumably, then, the earlier bretwaldas had hideages; and it is possible that 
Bede used, for reference, a Tribal Hideage compiled under the bretwaldaship of one of 
the Northumbrian kings. But the Mercian hideage was unique. 'As a precise cadastre and 
as a detailed record of historical topography, it has no parallel for its period in the whole of 
western Europe. . . . The whole work bears the stamp of authority, combined with great 
administrative ability* : see Cyril Hart: The Tribal Hideage', Transactions of the Royal 
Historical Society, November 1971. 



shires to nation. The concept was refined later to produce a Burghal 
Hideage for towns, and a County Hideage for shires; and this last, in 
turn, made possible Domesday Book. Domesday Book adumbrated 
the growth of the Exchequer, and its characteristic instrument, the 
pipe-roll, which survived as the record of central finance until 1832, 
when England was already a great industrial nation, and the heart of a 
world-empire. This crude summary, of course, ignores an infinite 
multitude of complexities; but it is still true to say that the rural 
society of eighth-century Mercia developed the matrix of modern 

The strength of Old English society was thus based on a well-informed 
central authority, which used its knowledge to pay its way. But the 
England of the English was still highly vulnerable: a million people 
sitting on some of the best land in the world, developing it steadily to 
make it a still more tempting target for the violent and predatory 
forces of north-west Europe. When England turned inwards in the 
eighth century, it became essentially a civil society of farmers. The Eng- 
lish manor never became a military institution; not even the Normans, 
who were geared to little else but warfare, could make it one. The Chan- 
nel and the North Sea provided powerful natural barriers to aggression; 
but both could be crossed, and they constituted a standing temptation 
to ignore the unpleasant and expensive realities of a world ruled by 
force. The English never developed a professional army. Except in 
brief moments of extreme crisis they could not even produce an amat- 
eur one able to keep the field. Their efforts to create a navy nearly 
always ended in lamentable failure. It was not that the English lacked 
aggression; they have always been among the most aggressive peoples 
on earth. But they seemed incapable of any sustained attempt to har- 
ness their aggression to a national purpose. They accepted the concept 
of a national defence force. They had the administrative machine to 
produce it on an equitable basis - an armed man for every two hides, 
making the fyrd equal to about i per cent of the total population. The 
conscripts, with much reluctance, would assemble; they would even 
fight fiercely, if battle was not delayed; then their only thought was to 
get back to their farms, and their blood-feuds. For most of the time the 
English State was, for all practical purposes, disarmed. The wonder is 
that the English contrived to survive at all. They might so easily have 
become another lost people of history. There was absolutely nothing 
inevitable about their durability. In the ninth, tenth and eleventh 
centuries they were the victims of overwhelming aggression. Why were 
they not extinguished? There is no simple answer. History is not pro- 
pelled by single causes. The English were saved once by a great man, 

4 8 


once by the cunning and resourcefulness of their ruling class, and once 
by the resilience of their institutions and their language. Each episode 
is worth examining. 

In 865 a Scandinavian army of unprecedented size moved into England 
with the object of setting up a permanent system of exploitation. In 
the next 13 years it destroyed all the English kingdoms except Wessex, 
and in most districts began the partition of the land for settlement. In 
878 the odds were overwhelming that English civilisation would be 
destroyed; that its forms of government, speech and culture would 
disappear; that an alien ruling class would be established and a mass- 
migration take place under its aegis; and that the English would sur- 
vive, like the Britons before them, only as a servile class, gradually 
adopting the dominant culture. When Alfred took refuge with his 
personal followers in the marshes west of Selwood, this was the 
imminent prospect facing his country and people. 

But a civil society based on a degree of consent has enormous re- 
serves. It is one of the most comforting lessons which history teaches 
us. The resources of civilisation are not easily exhausted. A society 
banded together for aggressive purposes, whose ethics, criteria and 
hierarchy are exclusively military, led by men whose status rests solely 
on force, possesses great initial advantages. But its strength is more 
apparent than real; it has no self-sustaining moral authority, no in- 
ternal discipline other than violence; it can satisfy only a limited 
spectrum of human desires; it is inherently corrupt; it possesses no 
collective wisdom, except in the narrow field of military expediency; 
it can tolerate no freedom of discussion, and therefore has no capacity 
to respond to changed conditions; its victories generate anarchy, and 
its defeats despair, for it has nothing worth-while to defend. By contrast, 
a civil society can more easily survive setbacks and learn from them ; 
it has a sense of righteousness which breeds determination and, if 
necessary, unparalleled ferocity: it confronts instinct with reason, 
formulates long-term policies and new forms of discipline and organisa- 
tion. Once grant it a breathing-space, after the initial shock, and it will 
quickly develop a strategy of survival and forge the instruments of 
victory. In the long run it holds all the moral and intellectual cards, and 
these are decisive in combination. 

But the breathing-space is vital; and it is usually left to an individual 
to make it possible. There is always a role for a great man in the clash 
of collective forces ; no one who studies English history can be in any 
doubt on this point. The opportunity exists; the moment is ripe; the 



resources are there ; but unless the man to set them in motion is available, 
the occasion will pass, and perhaps never recur. One solitary person^ 
with clarity, single-mindedness, energy and will can thrust his shoulder 
against the hinge of history, shift the equipoise, and thus accomplish 
the work of multitudes. In retrospect it looks inevitable, but without 
him it would not have taken place. Such a man was Alfred. The legends 
which surround him cannot obscure the extraordinary facts of his life. 
As we study them, we feel at times that he was taking upon himself 
the responsibilities of an entire nation: saving the state, rescuing 
civilisation from ruins, building a fleet, organising a system of urban 
defence, creating a militia, setting up a diplomatic service, educating 
a ruling class, importing scholars, transforming his court into a centre 
of learning, administrative innovation, and systematic justice - doing 
all this, as it were, with his bare hands. Whenever the documents allow 
us to glimpse him at close quarters, we see an essentially solitary figure: 
harassed by a multitude of worries, overburdened by conflicting 
demands on his time. In one letter his bedroom is shown invaded by a 
pack of arguing litigants ; he looks up - he is washing his hands - and 
gives a cool and sensible judgment. He is always thoughtful, with the 
origin ality of a man who has come to education late, has received no 
packaged opinions, and has worked things out for himself; an ingenious 
man, forced by events to devise solutions to entirely new problems. A 
naive man, in some ways, and an eccentric - the first English eccentric - 
designing curious mechanical gadgets. Not a man ever allowed to relax 
for long from the most crushing cares of State, but one whose thoughts 
were none the less haunted by the deepest mysteries of existence. What is 
life? Why are we here? What, then, must we do? 

Alfred was not a lucky man. Most of his life he was sick.* His family 
background was first strained, then tragic. His father, then in succes- 
sion his three elder brothers, died at brief intervals. He had virtually 
no education as a child. He inherited no advisers of any ability, and 
always had difficulty in finding trustworthy subordinates. The machin- 
ery of the State was running down, and he had to rebuild it. He won no 
easy victories. He devoted his whole adult life, with many setbacks, to 
securing the minimum of national security. What is remarkable about 
his achievement is not its magnitude but the means he employed. We 
see him on the one hand as a successful soldier and administrator; on 
the other as a man of wide tastes who brought about a renaissance of 
English civilisation. From the standpoint of our age, the two roles seem 

* His disease, said Asser, baffled all the doctors. It may have been epilepsy, or a violent 
skin infection (very common among the Old English) or piles. See Wilfred Bonser: The 
Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1951), pp. 109-10. 



incompatible, almost in conflict. They would not seem so to him. A 
king would, he felt, be a better soldier and administrator by acquiring 
the civilised disciplines and applying them to his public functions. It 
was his theory and his practice of government. A realm was not worth 
defending, unless it itself defended worth-while things; standards and 
honourable conduct mattered as much as life and property. An enemy 
must not merely be defeated but reformed, and induced to come within 
the lighted circle of civilisation. He never appears to have felt any 
racial hatred for the Danes, or contemplated a war of extermination. 
Perhaps he realised that a Scandinavian element in English society was 
now inevitable; it must be absorbed on a basis of peace, in which the 
alien presence would be made acceptable by acquiring first the veneer, 
then the substance, of English culture. And the conductor in this 
process was Christianity. Attempts to tame the Danes by baptism were 
common enough; the Danes complied, when forced to, and sneered 
afterwards. But Alfred saw that the method, if pursued with patience 
and persistency, would work in the end. Treaties sealed by baptism 
might be broken; but it was sound policy, as well as Christian duty, to 
use diplomacy as well as war; every respite could be put to use, not 
least for military ends. He had often to revert to war; but each time his 
sense of purpose was clearer, his means more adequate, his strategy more 

What, in effect, Alfred did was to apply the Mercian concepts of 
civil administration to the business of winning a war, and thus impel 
the State to take a giant leap forward in sophistication. He operated a 
regular budget, for the first time, and placed public responsibilities - 
for the army, for the fleet, for the construction and defence of fortified 
towns - on a systematic basis of shared responsibility. These measures 
created the infrastructure of a united kingdom, as much by the process 
of putting them into effect as by the security they provided. In 886 his 
forces entered London and, says The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 'all the 
English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the 
power of the Danes'. As for the settled Danes, Alfred grasped the point 
that the very process of acquiring real estate, a stake in the country, 
was a solution to the problem of perpetual warfare between them and 
the English - they now, like the English, had a great deal to lose. His 
final treaty with the Danes not only demarcated the frontier but 
interlocked the legal systems by establishing an agreed scale of wergilds : 
the effect was to produce a degree of inter-racial harmony at a personal 
as well as at a State level, and so expose the Danes to English cultural 
penetration. Alfred never seems to have doubted that, under the rule of 
law, English civilisation could absorb the Danes withoutresort to force. 



His treaty was an early example of English confidence in the power of 
diplomatic effort. 

Alfred indeed seems to have reposed unlimited faith in the civic 
virtues. He believed in the moral authority of a civilised people. In 
law, that is the moral framework of government, the King was neces- 
sarily the final arbiter, but his decisions were not arbitrary; he merely 
judged whether or not the law had been observed. The law itself 
evolved from the collective wisdom of many men; the King codified it, 
and in that sense it became his law; he might even create new laws, but 
this was done in consultation with his council or witan; and it was a 
prerogative exercised sparingly, and not necessarily binding on his 
successors. That the King felt himself to be subject to the law is 
made touchingly clear by Alfred's will, in which he is at pains to show 
executors and posterity that his dispositions are fair, just and 
legal; and in setting out his own law-code, he is admirably succinct on 
how he thinks the legislative process ought to work: 

[Holy bishops and other distinguished wise men] in many synods fixed the 
compensation for many human misdeeds, and they wrote them in many 
synod-books, here one law, there another. Then I, King Alfred, collected 
these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers 
observed, those which I liked ; and many of those which I did not like I 
rejected with the advice of my counsellors, and ordered them to be differ- 
ently observed. For I dared not presume to set in writing at all many of my 
own, for it was unknown to me what would please those who should come 
after us. 

Thus to the Mercian creation of an equitable system of direct taxation - 
the basis of effective and acceptable government - the kingdom of 
Wessex added a clear doctrine and practice of legislation. The law was 
ultimately based on collective custom; inspired by rational concepts 
of evidence, proof and fair play; tidied up by men trained in methods 
derived from imperial Rome; added to by King and council as and 
when required; but never ossified - always left open to revision and 
repeal and augmentation. Here, at the end of the ninth century, 
we already have an organic structure of public affairs ; the political and 
legal pattern is established, infinitely capable of growth and develop- 
ment, but conditioning and controlling the process with great tenacity. 
The structure could and did absorb alien elements, but it could no longer 
be fundamentally changed. The primary cause of the continuity and 
stability of our offshore island's history was the strength of Old English 
society. The strength was based on an accurate balance between the 
needs of the State and the rights of the individual; and the balance, in 



turn, was were maintained by a law to which all, the State included, 
subject - a law founded on custom and modified by consent. 

With this system Alfred gave the English people, and the British 
lowlands they inhabit, a unity which they had never before possessed, 
and which they have never since lost. His successors extended this new 
unity to the entire English territory. But it was a unity based on, and 
strengthened by, diversity. Alfred won the allegiance of Mercia 
and Northumbria by diplomacy, conciliation and by the devolution 
of authority; his laws incorporated elements from Mercia and Kent as 
well as Wessex, and respect for local custom was a salient principle of 
his rule. The Danish settlers, too, as they entered into the kingdom, kept 
their own organic elements of law and tenure. 

Thus English unity was created not by force but because men were 
persuaded, by a political genius who was also a transparently good man, 
that they needed it. To Alfred unity was, I think, more a cultural matter 
than something which revolved around race and politics. Coming to 
literacy and learning late in life, amid the terrible pressures of an active 
and anxious career, it seemed to him a miraculous gift, a window into 
a better and purer world, which it was his duty to share with all. Of 
course it had its practical purposes: it was essential to the administra- 
tion of just law, which Alfred rightly recognised is the foundation of 
human happiness in this world. It was fear of the King's rebukes, says 
his biographer Bishop Asser, that made 

. . . the ealdormen and reeves hasten to turn themselves with all their might 
to the task of learning justice ... so that in a marvellous fashion almost all the 
ealdermen, thegns and reeves, who had been untaught from their childhood, 
gave themselves to the study of letters, preferring thus toilsomely to pursue 
this unaccustomed study than resign the exercise of their authority. 

But Alfred certainly did not regard learning as merely utilitarian, nor 
the exclusive right of the ruling and administrative class. He 'with 
great care collected many nobles of his own nation and boys of 
humbler birth and formed them into a school'. The learning was 
cosmopolitan. Few of Alfred's cultural advisers came from Wessex; 
four, including Plegmund, whom he made Archbishop of Canterbury, 
were Mercian; one imported scholar was French, another German; and 
Bishop Asser himself was Welsh. Alfred corresponded with a wide 
range of foreign scholars, including the Patriarch of Jerusalem, a pro- 
fessional beggar on behalf of his see, who got money from the King in 
exchange for medical recipes. The culture Alfred tried so desperately to 
embrace was the universal culture of the ancients and the fathers, 
expressed in Latin; it was a dramatic moment for him when, in 887, he 



first began to make sense of the language. But he had been literate in 
English since the age of 12, and he recognised that, except for the minor- 
ity, this must be the language of cultural progress. So he began an 
elaborate programme of translating key texts into English, taking a 
leading part in the task himself. As he says in a letter to the Bishop 
of Worcester, translations were not made earlier because scholars 
could not believe learning would fall into decay. They could not have 
foreseen the terrible events of his own lifetime. An English literature 
was a necessary guarantee against future catastrophe, and the only 
means by which large numbers of people could get at the truth: 

Therefore it seems better to me . . . for us also to translate some books which 
are most needful for all men to know into the language which we can all 
understand, so that we can very easily bring it about, if we have tranquillity 
enough, that all the youth now in England, if free men who are rich enough 
to devote themselves to it, be set to learn as long as they are not ready for 
any other occupation, until they are able to read English writing well; and 
let these who are to continue in learning, and be promoted to a higher rank, 
be afterwards taught more in the Latin language. 

Alfred could not foresee that the humble tongue he thus encouraged 
would in time wholly supersede Latin as the international language of 
culture and scholarship, would conquer the world as the chief vehicle 
for political, economic, scientific and technological advance, and poise 
itself for its ultimate role as the first universal language, spoken and 
written by countless millions in countries he did not even know existed. 
He would have rejoiced at this astonishing prospect. He believed in 
the English. He had Bede's famous History translated, and he spon- 
sored a systematic record of English events which, in its various texts, 
we know as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Such works were made in mul- 
tiple copies, as were the laws and other public documents, and sent all 
over the kingdom to be preserved for use and reference in the libraries 
of cathedrals and monasteries. 

What a strange man Alfred was; an archetype of all that was best 
and yet most mysterious in the curious race whose destinies he helped 
so decisively to shape. We can trace the development of his own 
thoughts from his early, literal translations, to the much freer ones 
towards the end of his life, in which he interpolates fragments of know- 
ledge from visitors to his court, whom he subjected to relentless quest- 
ioning, and his own private reflections. It is an extraordinary privilege 
thus to be allowed to peer into the mind of this great king and man of 
action, who has been dead more than a thousand years. In some ways 
it was a clumsy mind, grappling awkwardly with abstract concepts 



which were beyond it, and taking refuge in laboured metaphors. 
Alfred came from a society which had advanced its economy by the 
conquest of the forest, and his images revolve around wood: wooden 
ships, wheels, buildings. Here is the practical, English mind, trying to 
come to terms with Latin abstraction. Behind it lies a fierce energy, an 
implacable refusal to accept defeat, the same obstinacy and resolu- 
tion which marked his public life. There must be answers to the deepest 
questions of existence, as there were practical answers to military, 
naval, judicial and administrative problems. 'I w r ould know/ he wrote, 
'whether after the parting of the body and the soul, I shall ever know 
more than I now know of all that which I have long wished to know; for 
I cannot find anything better in man 'than that he know, and nothing 
worse than that he be ignorant/ Or again: 'Man must increase his 
intelligence while he is in this world, and also wish and desire that he 
may come to the eternal life, where nothing is hid from us/ 

We can detect, in this endeavour to enlighten the earthly world, a 
strain in Alfred which transcended the limitations of the medieval 
Christian mind, which imprisoned man by insisting that material 
progress was futile, and release would come only through eternity. 
Alfred was to all appearances an orthodox Christian, but he had in him 
the instinct of his native Pelagianism: a belief in free will and in the 
ability of humanity not indeed to perfect itself but to raise its status 
and improve its condition. One day the Renaissance and the Reforma- 
tion would break down the prison walls ; in the meantime Alfred 
already sounded a new English note of earnest moral conviction that 
the prevailing darkness could be pushed back. If his characteristic 
tone is pessimistic, it is relieved by the hope which comes from struggle 
and achievement, however incomplete. 'I can understand little of Him, 
or nothing at all, and yet at times, when I think carefully of Him, in- 
spiration comes to me about the eternal life/ The battle for knowledge 
in Alfred's life mirrored the battle to preserve a kingdom and rescue a 
civilisation. He might have said, 'Wessex has saved herself by her ex- 
ertions, and England by her example'; as, centuries later, England 
would repeatedly save Europe and the world. Most of Alfred's work 
achieved fruition only after his death; he certainly found no tranquillity 
in this life; we get hints of a certain weariness, of impatience and anger 
with officials who failed to carry out his orders, whether in building 
fortresses or administering the law. Alfred never seems to have possessed 
lieutenants (except his splendid daughter JSthelflsed, and her husband 
Ealdorman ^Ethelred of Mercia) who measured up to his own standards 
of responsibility. This is not surprising; he would have been outstanding 
in any age or society. But greatness makes for loneliness. Alfred yearned 



for men of stature to share his burdens, and thought anxiously of the 
future after he was gone. By the time he died, in his mid-fifties, he was - 
like all great English monarchs - a very tired man. Using his familiar 
metaphor, and with a final, sad phrase which catches at the heart, he 
left his gospel of work and aspirations for English posterity : 

Then I gathered for myself staves and props and bars, and handles for all 
the tools I knew how to use, and crossbars and beams for all the structures 
I knew how to build, the fairest piece of timber I knew how to carry. I neither 
came home with a single load, nor did it suit me to bring home all the wood, 
even if I could have carried it. In each tree I saw something that I required at 
home. For I advise each of those who are strong and have many waggons, to 
plan to go to the same wood where I have cut these props, and fetch for him- 
self more there, and load his waggons with fair rods, so that he can plait many 
a fair wall, and put up many a peerless building, and build a fair enclosure 
with them, and may dwell therein pleasantly and at his ease, winter and 
summer, as I have not yet done. 

In the year 1014, Archbishop Wulfstan of York preached a remarkable 
sermon in his cathedral. It must have made an immense impression on 
those who heard it ; it was repeated on several occasions, and, under the 
title of 'Sermon of the Wolf to the English', was written down and 
copied in many manuscripts. It is the first recorded instance we have 
of a dramatic and sombre appeal to the English to save themselves 
from destruction, and thus part of a long tradition, running through 
the speeches of Henry v, Elizabeth and Pitt, and culminating in the 
great Churchillian broadcasts. Wulfstan was a formidable personage: 
the leading churchman of his age, an experienced legalist, a secular 
statesman, and the unofficial head of that powerful and mysterious 
body which we can, for the first time, dimly perceive: the English 
establishment. A century and a half before, England had been saved 
by a great king. Now it was to be saved by a class, and the man who 
spoke for it. In the interval, the unitary kingdom established by Alfred 
had acquired all the accretions of stable and ancient authority: sonor- 
ous titles for its monarch, an elaborate coronation service at which he 
was invested with them; a proliferating hierarchy of honour, office and 
wealth; traditions and ceremonials which already inspired foreigners 
with awe. But it had not acquired lasting military security: this was 
something beyond the capacity of the Old English State to achieve. 
Wulfstan was profoundly aware that England's ultimate defence lay 
in the integrity of its civilisation - the system of laws and government, 
of public and private standards, built up on the work of Offa and 



Alfred. This could be fatally diluted, not by an infusion of race, for the 
English could always cope with that, but by the heedless acceptance 
of alien modes of conduct. It was not the swords of the heathen he 
feared so much as their lack of probity. Wulfstan inspired a sinister 
entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 959, in which he 
accused King Edgar of having too much truck with the alien world: 
'He loved evil foreign customs . . . and attracted hither foreigners and 
enticed harmful people to this country/ In 975 occurred a national 
catastrophe. Edgar died unexpectedly, leaving sons by different mothers, 
and the elder, Edward, only in his teens. He quickly became involved 
in a violent conflict with a group of landowners, almost certainly on 
the issue of tax-evasion through the endowment of family pseudo- 
monasteries - the very evil against which the aged Bede had warned 
250 years before. Three years later he was murdered by the servants of 
his young half-brother JSthelred, who thus became the beneficiary (if 
not the author) of the worst State crime in Old English history. 

This terrible event led to a steady and in the end dramatic decline 
in English public standards. ^Ethelred took no steps to find and punish 
the murderers. The episode cast a lengthening shadow over his reign, 
and the presence on the English throne of a compromised king inevit- 
ably attracted hostile foreign attention. In 981 the Danish raids were 
resumed. Loyalty was the salient principle of the Old English State. 
Undermined by the throne itself, it collapsed. Some of JSthelred's 
own appointees changed sides several times. He himself married, as 
his second wife, a Norman princess, Emma, of barbarous Norse fore- 
bears. Great private landowners made their own arrangements with the 
invaders. The Danes themselves were often disloyal. One of JSthelred's 
few successful commanders was a Danish deserter, and his son and heir, 
Edmund Ironside, drew more effective support from the men of the 
Danelaw than from Wessex itself. It became increasingly difficult for 
men to know where their true interests and allegiance lay. Money 
replaced patriotism as the instrument of national survival. In 991 
^Ethelred bought a peace treaty with the Danes for 10,000. Until then 
to pay Danegeld was not necessarily dishonourable or imprudent; 
Alfred himself had sanctioned the practice as a useful expedient to 
gain time. But ^Ethelred made it into a principle of government : the 
sums demanded rose to 16,000, to 24,000, to 36,000 - in 1012 to the 
colossal figure of 48,000. It was pointless to blame the Danes for break- 
ing these treaties; the English King himself was equally unscrupulous. 
In 1002 he ordered his Danish hostages to be slaughtered. Such a policy 
would have seemed inconceivable to Alfred, with his policy of combining 
firmness with reconciliation. Moreover, it was not merely a crime but a 



blunder, for among those killed was the sister of Swein, King of Den- 
mark. Her murder persuaded him to turn large-scale piracy into a 
national invasion and seize the throne itself - a project triumphantly 
completed by his son, Cnut. 

The Sermon of the Wolf accurately reflects the prevailing atmosphere 
of broken morale and national self-abasement. Wulfstan paints a 
devastating picture, in considerable detail, of the collapse of the social 
system. He speaks of 'wavering loyalties among men everywhere'. 
He says that 'too often a kinsman does not protect a kinsman any 
more than a stranger', that men sell their relatives into slavery, that 
women are openly purchased, girls and widows forced into marriage 
for money, thegns reduced to slaves, and slaves, by desertion, become 
lords. Self-respect has been lost : 

The English have been for a long time now completely defeated and too 
greatly cjishearted through God's anger; and the pirates so strong with God's 
consent that often in battle one puts to flight ten . . . and often ten or a dozen, 
one after another, insult disgracefully the thegn's wife, and sometimes his 
daughter or near kinswoman, whilst he looks on, who considered himself brave 
and mighty and stout enough before that happened. . . . But all the insults 
which we often suffer we repay with honouring those who insult us; we pay 
them continually and they humiliate us daily. 

Wulfstan had been brought up in the English tradition which relied on a 
strong central government to secure the safety of the realm and the 
health of society; and that government was embodied in the royal 
line of Wessex, already the oldest and most distinguished in Europe, 
occupying a throne with a longer continuous existence than any other 
Christian institution, except the papacy itself. He had thought deeply 
about kingship, and the qualities required of the men who discharged 
its duties. He had written a book on the subject, his Institutes of Polity, 
the first original English work of political theory. When writing -^Ethel- 
red's laws, Wulfstan had placed tremendous emphasis on the dignity 
and power of the office. The King was Christ's earthly vicar in the realm 
of England. He was, to use an expression later employed on Edward the 
Confessor's behalf, the judge set up by God to rule Church and State 
and arbitrate between them. What, then, was to be done when the King 
was inadequate or betrayed his office? The only answer was that those 
around the King, the wise clerics and substantial lords of his kingdom, 
should by one means or another, act in concert. In 1012-13 occurred 
the first significantconstitutional crisis in English history. The territor- 
ial aristocracy refused to lead the levies into battle unless JSthelred 
attended in person. He left the country and fled to his wife's relatives 



in Normandy. He was eventually permitted to return, but only on 
condition that he signed a document explicitly promising wholesale 
reforms in his methods of government. There can be no doubt that 
Wulfstan was the controlling agent behind this solution. It adumbrates 
Magna Carta almost exactly by two hundred years. This bargain 
between King and subjects introduced a new principle into the system 
of English monarchy, which henceforth was never allowed to lapse 
entirely. It illustrates the axiom, by no means confined to England, 
that military disaster is the father of constitutional change - by consent 
in England, by revolution elsewhere. For the first time government 
had become contractual, and the concept of a commonwealth was 

Under Wulfstan's guidance, England survived not only this crisis, 
but the death of JEthelred in 1016 and his son a year later. There were 
now only two sources of authority in the country: the English estab- 
lishment, and the impending military tyranny of Cnut. But Wulfstan 
was an audacious man. He decided to marry the first to the second and 
invest a gifted savage with the apparatus of constitutional English 
regality. Once again, the resources of English civilisation were not ex- 
hausted. The powers of the English monarchy were there to be exercised; 
the administration still existed; the Church was still the repository of 
learning and the link with the international civilised community. 
Wulfstan was a smooth exponent of the wiles of the establishment, 
adept at compromise, able to flatter a powerful outsider out of his 
senses, willing to take on the job of taming a barbarous Danish war- 
lord, as his kind would later tame socialist cabinet ministers. Cnut was 
an apt, indeed eager, pupil. His Christian background was uncertain; 
but he recognised that enthusiasm for the Church was the mark of 
civilised statesmanship, and he adjusted his religious ideas accordingly. 
He was only too willing to submit to the guidance which Wulfstan 
gracefully proffered. Thus the old English prelate and the young 
Danish general went into partnership together, and one of the most 
successful experiments in English history commenced. 

The truth is Cnut was as anxious to come in out of the cold as the 
English were to receive him in their warm places. They wanted peace; 
he wanted to become respectable. They thought they could do a good 
civilising job on him; and they were right. Cnut felt the time had come 
to wipe the blood off his hands, and learn a new trade as a civilised ruler. 
No upstart adventurer has ever settled downmore complacently with a rich 
heiress of ancient lineage. Cnut wanted power, but he also wanted to 
go up in the world, to be recognised as a great Christian gentleman as 
well as a warrior. He yearned for the flattery of the warm south, as have 


so many of his race since. To sit on the English throne, as its recognised, 
conformist and legitimate tenant, was the key which unlocked all these 
doors. The instincts of a ruffian remained: he quickly disposed of, 
without trial, several inconvenient relics of the old reign. But he then 
proceeded to become an enthusiastic English monarch. He dutifully 
married ^Etheked's widow, no easy assignment. He cut military ex- 
penditure and reduced taxation, always a high road to English hearts. 
He allowed Wulf stan to codify the laws in such a thorough and compre- 
hensive manner that the text was still regarded as an authority in 
twelfth-century England. When in Denmark, in 1019-20, he delighted 
the English by sending them an open letter, to be read at the shire 
courts, in which he reported progress and gave instructions for the laws 
to be justly enforced. His impeccable behaviour survived Wulfstan's 
death. In 1027 he went to Rome for the coronation of the Emperor. 
He was given a splendid reception, not only by the Pope but by the 
assembled European dignitaries, which he rightly guessed was due more 
to his status as an English king than to his reputation as a northern 
warrior. His letter from Rome to the English people naively records his 
pleasure at this honour, and also lists certain important commercial 
advantages which he was able to negotiate with the Emperor, the Duke 
of Burgundy and the Pope, releasing English merchants from irksome 
tolls. He was a great credit to the old archbishop. He kept a modest 
but effective fleet of 16 warships. He promoted English trade. He told 
the people what he was doing. He advanced Englishmen, rather than 
Danes, to positions of authority, so that by the end of his reign his 
government personnel was almost exclusively English. He had all the 
qualities of a popular English monarch. If the national game had 
existed, he would doubtless have played cricket too. He thus became a 
revered, semi-mythical figure for the offshore islanders, who were cap- 
able, then as now, of rewriting history while it is still happening. In 
fact he was a creature of the English establishment. A barbarous king, 
who was not surrounded and protected by able ecclesiastics, speaking 
his tongue and wholly creatures of his making, had no chance in 
confrontation with the Old English State. When Cnut's line died out, 
the English quietly put the House of Wessex back on to the throne. 
It was as though the Danish monarchy had never been. The Danish 
settlers became Englishmen, making their own distinctive contribution 
to our language and our free institutions. 

But could England and the English survive if the establishment itself 
committed suicide, as it did in 1066 and the years that followed? Here 



was the real test of English resilience. In the year 1085 William I 
spent Christmas in the abbey at Gloucester, and after the feast and the 
traditional crown- wearing 

. . . the king had much thought and very deep discussion with his council 
about this country - how it was occupied or with what sort of people. Then 
he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them find out how 
many hundred hides there were in the shire. 

This survey was exceptionally thorough and detailed, so thorough 
indeed that it aroused the disgust of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, who 
thought it shameful that a king should be avaricious enough to want 
to know how many pigs a man possessed. But the chronicler, in his 
hatred of the Normans, was being disingenuous. Though the survey was 
directed and supervised by Archbishop Lanfranc and the able group 
of ecclesiastical and lay barons of William's council, it was actually 
carried out by the Anglo-Saxon civil service along familiar English 
lines which had their origins in the eighth century. Indeed England was 
the only state in Europe which had established the concept of a direct 
tax on land, and therefore possessed the method and machinery to 
conduct such an inquiry. To suit William's purposes, the findings were 
to some extent rearranged on a personal basis (tenancies-in-chief) 
rather than the strictly geographical basis of hundreds which the English 
preferred. But the concept of the shire was maintained, and in all other 
respects the Domesday survey was a characteristically English ad- 
ministrative operation. Carried out 20 years after the Conquest, it 
testifies to the durability of the English infrastructure. 

Yet the facts and figures in Domesday also testify to the complete 
destruction of the English ruling class. Lands belonging to 4-5,000 
English earls and thegns had been redistributed among 180 barons of 
Continental origin. Only two Englishmen held lands directly from the 
King as tenants-in-chief ; both came from families of minor importance 
at the time of Hastings, and had clearly prospered by working with the 
regime and acquiring the confiscated lands of other Englishmen. One 
fifth of the land was controlled directly by the King himself; a quarter 
by a powerful ring of senior vassals, bound to the King by marriage, 
official status and long friendship; a quarter by the Church; and the 
rest by other barons, almost all of them from France. A few important 
old English families survived as sub-tenants in a small way. Some of the 
lesser families kept their lands, adopted the Continental culture, and 
were to re-emerge in the thirteenth century as magnates - the Berkeleys, 
Cromwells, Nevilles, Lumleys, Greystokes, Audleys and Fitzwilliams 
were of Anglo-Saxon origin, despite their names. But on the whole 


William, over 20 years, made a clean sweep of the English establish- 
ment. At his death political power was confined almost exclusively to 
Continentals, as his charters testify. No more than six Englishmen had 
any say in government. They held only two bishoprics and two major 
abbeys, and all six were old men who had been appointed before 1066, 
for William gave senior Church posts only to Continentals. His house- 
hold and chancery were controlled by Frenchmen, and nearly all the 
sheriffs were French. 

But this Continental takeover was simply a matter of personnel, and 
personnel chiefly in the higher reaches. Some monks were imported 
from the Continent ; small colonies of Frenchmen were set up in certain 
key towns, for defensive purposes but no doubt for trade also ; groups of 
Jews came to England, for the first time, in the Conqueror's wake, and 
other middle-class cosmopolitan elements found a home here. Great 
nobles brought retinues, though from the earliest times they evidently 
picked many of their servants from the English. The institution of the 
murdrum, in which local hundreds were held collectively responsible 
for a heavy fine unless they could prove that a murdered man found in 
their area was not a Frenchman, indicates not merely a certain amount 
of racial tension but the presence in England of Continentals of com- 
paratively humble status, whose disappearance would not immediately 
be noticed. But there is no evidence that Frenchmen in large numbers 
came, or even wished to come, to England. When William dismissed his 
mercenaries in 1070, nearly all returned to France. Even the prospect 
of vast possessions over here was not always tempting. In 1080 William 
made Aubrey de Courcy Earl of Northumberland, but he soon resigned 
and returned to France, even though this meant he forfeited his other 
English estates. The probability is that the Continental settlement did 
not involve more than 10,000 people - and perhaps as few as 5,000 - 
out of a population of well over a million. England simply acquired a 
new ruling class. 

What, then, happened to the old one, which so successfully absorbed 
the Danes and turned their mighty monarch into a satisfactory English 
gentleman? The answer is that it destroyed itself. It lost its self-con- 
fidence and unity as the custodian of English culture. Already in 
^Ethelred's day, as we have seen, there had been a confusion of identity 
among the English ruling class. With the development of fast and re- 
liable sea-transport, eleventh-century England was increasingly ex- 
posed to the geopolitics of north-west Europe; it was the greatest prize 
in that part of the world, and vulnerable to the aggressive and active 
races of Scandinavia, and their settlements in north-west France. 
There was a mingling of cultures at the courts and, more important, 



intermarriage among the great. Wulfstan had perceived the threat, 
and his political genius had enabled England to surmount it. But he 
had been dealing with Danes. Scandinavian culture, despite its military 
superiority, was no match for the ancient, Christianised civilisation of 
England; the Danish presence here was formidable, and felt well beyond 
the Danelaw itself; but it soon became subordinate. The English legal 
system, springing from common roots, soon adjusted itself to Danish 
customs and categories, which were allowed to prevail where the Danes 
were predominant ; the English have always been prepared to tolerate 
foreign importations, except of course in essentials. In cultural matters 
the Danes were humble and easily suborned.* 

The Norman-Scandinavians were a different matter. They had 
adopted French speech and culture, and thus inherited the extraor- 
dinary aggressiveness and self-confidence of that civilisation. Through 
JSthelred's unfortunate marriage to Emma, they acquired a toehold 
at the heart of the English establishment. Emma, the queen-spider 
figure in a tangle of relationships, was half-barbarian; but in so far as 
she was civilised she was Norman-French. Her son Edward the Con- 
fessor was likewise Norman by culture, association, inclination and 
perhaps by speech too. During his reign there was a manifest and 
violent conflict of cultures at his court and in his administration. Its 
outcome was all the more uncertain in that none of the principal actors 
was wholly sure of his or her cultural and racial identity. In eleventh- 
century England, the confusion produced by intermarriage across the 
narrow seas was almost absolute. Take Emma herself. She was 
Norman, the great-aunt of William, who by the 10405 was the effective 
ruling Duke. She had married JSthelred the Englishman, then Cnut the 
Dane, and had had sons by both. Where did her loyalties lie ? With the 
English line, represented by Edward? With Cnut's children? With her 
own Norman house? Royal intermarriage, in theory designed to 
promote international amity, is far more likely in practice to provoke 
disputed claims across frontiers, and so racial tension ; it is the same to- 
day with international sport. The royal houses of both Norway and 
Denmark had blood-claims to the English throne, and both were also 
related to men who stood at the centre of English politics. Earl Godwine, 
the most powerful English politician and landowner at the mid-century, 
was a self-made man of lesser gentry stock. He probably had Scandin- 
avian blood anyway. To advance himself with Cnut, he had married 
Cytha, the sister of Quit's brother-in-law; she was a savage lady who, 
among other things, bought beautiful girls in England and shipped 
them as slave-prostitutes to Denmark. Of her many sons, one, Tosti, 

* See Appendix I. 



eventually identified himself with the Scandinavians; most of the rest, 
led by Harold, thought of themselves as Englishmen, at least for political 
purposes. The problem might have been solved if Edward the Confessor 
had produced an heir. Godwine persuaded him to marry his daughter 
Edith (who was of course half-Scandinavian) ; but no child was born. 
When the Confessor died, all the chief claimants were related to each 
other. Even Harold had a marriage-relationship with his mortal enemy, 
the Conqueror. It was a small world in the eleventh century; but a 
violent world, in which blood-links raised more problems than they 

When Harold seized the throne immediately after the Confessor's 
death, the English ruling class was not only racially confused, it was 
also politically divided. There had been a major internal crisis in the 
early 10505, and another in 1065, when Harold's brother Tosti had been 
ousted from Northumbria, possibly with Harold's connivance, and had 
then thrown in his lot with a Scandinavian claimant. England was 
coming apart at the seams. The growth of huge territorial earldoms 
threatened the unity of the kingdom; they might eventually have 
developed into semi-autonomous territories, as in Germany and France. 
The Confessor's properties brought him in only about 2,500 a year, 
not much more than that of several of his subjects; to run the State he 
relied on the geld which produced a further 6,000; he was becoming 
merely a primus inter pares.* Thus William did not so much conquer 
England as save it from disintegration. The haste with which Harold 
acted after the Confessor died indicates the weakness of his position. 
The other earls, apart from his own brothers, did not attend his corona- 
tion. He quickly married the sister of Edwin and Morcar, the two most 
important, but even this gesture could not persuade them to fight with 
him in battle. The men he led at Hastings were almost all mercenaries. 
The Church, which had in the past so successfully underpinned the 
unity of the State and ruling class, was in great difficulty. The Arch- 
bishop of Canterbury, Stigand, could not play his role as unofficial head 
of the establishment, as Wulfstan had done. He was not only a pluralist 
but had got Canterbury as a result of the political crisis of the 10505, in 
an uncanonical manner; he had been declared deposed by successive 
popes. Harold would not allow Stigand to crown him, and got the 
Archbishop of York to do the job instead. This was another element of 
weakness in Harold's position. It is evident that many important 
people did not want him as King, and felt he was motivated purely by 
personal and family interests. He was thus forced to rely on the sole 

* The Confessor's finances are examined in Frank Barlow: Edward the Confessor 
(London, 1970), Chapter 7. 

6 4 


arbitration of battle, and this in the end failed him. The truth is that 
the bulk of the English establishment contracted out of the 1066 crisis. 

But at least Harold was a purposeful and decisive man. After his 
death, the behaviour of the English ruling class was both foolish and 
contemptible. It deserved to disappear, for in effect it abdicated. This 
is what made Hastings one of the truly conclusive battles of history. 
It did not appear so immediately: William's first action, when the field 
was won, was to send to the Continent for reinforcements. The citizens 
of London were anxious to resist, and make Edgar, grandson of 
Edmund Ironside, King; the Earls of Mercia and Northumberland pro- 
mised support. But no one actually did anything. As the Chronicle puts 
it: 'But always the more it ought to have been forward the more it 
got behind, and the worse it grew from day to day, exactly as every- 
thing came to be at the end/ In the event, the establishment, such as it 
was, decided to submit. They met William at Berkhamstead and went 
with him to Westminster, where he was crowned on Christmas Day. 
He swore to uphold the laws and customs of the Confessor, and the 
mixed congregation of English and Continental notables was asked by 
the Archbishop of York (in English) and the Bishop of Coutance (in 
French) if they accepted him as King. They assented. 

Thus William's occupation of the throne took place within a frame- 
work of law - English law. It signified nothing more than the transfer 
of supreme authority, within the existing structure, to an alien family 
group. That this group became a class was entirely the fault of the Eng- 
lish. William's original intention was to run the kingdom through a 
mixed Anglo-Norman aristocracy, in which the native element would 
swiftly have become predominant. True, he confiscated the property of 
those who 'stood against me in battle and were slain there'. Some of his 
officers were sent to key points throughout the country and ordered to 
construct and garrison castles. But there were no mass confiscations on 
racial grounds. William's charters of 1068-9 were signed by leading 
English landowners, churchmen and royal officials inherited from 
Harold. Until 1069 most of the sheriffs were English, and indeed 
Englishmen received important fresh appointments. Unlike some of his 
followers, William was not a racist. He had no animus against his new 
subjects; he even tried to learn their language, a formidable task for a 
professional soldier and politician of his age: it is not surprising he gave 
up baffled. He seems to have liked many Englishmen. In 1070/1 he 
judged a dispute between the English Bishop of Worcester and the 
Norman Archbishop of York; although all his court and expert advisers, 
with the sole exception of Lanfranc, favoured York, William settled for 
Worcester - a very difficult and courageous decision. Domesday Book 



is a mysterious document, but (pace the Chronicle) it was aimed much 
more at the Norman element than the English. 

But William's policy was frustrated by the blind irresponsibility of 
the English ruling class. While incapable of organising concerted 
resistance, they repeatedly engaged in piecemeal or regional revolts, 
and in a manner calculated to rouse William's fury, allying themselves 
with anyone - Irish, Scots, Welsh, Norwegians, Danes, disaffected 
Norlnans and Frenchmen - willing to challenge the existing order. 
In some cases they did not even enjoy popular support. The Peterborough 
Chronicle makes it plain that the Fenland revolt associated with Here- 
ward the Wake was bitterly resented by at least a section of local public 
opinion. After the northern rebellion of 1069 William scrapped his 
general policy of associating the English aristocracy with his govern- 
ment, but he still tried to be generous to individuals. In 1072 he gave 
the earldom of Northumbria to Waltheof, head of the leading English 
family in the north; but three years later Waltheof let him down and 
conspired with two of William's own barons. The forces William raised 
to break this plot included, significantly, units provided by two senior 
English ecclesiastics. William was so angry and disappointed that he 
had the earl executed, a painful decision for the King, who was opposed 
on principle to capital punishment, and hardly ever permitted it. But 
William was a very serious-minded and responsible head of government, 
who believed his primary duty of maintaining order overrode all other 
considerations ; he found that in practice he had to work through his 
confederates, and this meant that the English upper class had to be 
stripped of their lands. 

What is most interesting about William's handling of the conquest 
and its consequences is the way in which his mind changed its focus 
after he became King. He invaded England at the head of what was a 
European crusade, whose object was to drag the offshore island back 
into the Continental system. Rome had always viewed the English 
Church and monarchy with intense suspicion. This is curious, for in the 
eighth century the English St Boniface and many hundreds of courag- 
eous English men and women had carried out the conversion of Germany ; 
the English were enthusiastic proselitisers - one might say that the 
first English empire was a spiritual one. But Rome was profoundly 
ignorant of what went on in England, and tended to regard the English 
as barbarous and heterodox. Even Wilfred, the arch-papalist, felt him- 
self an outsider at the Lateran court. On the rare occasions when papal 
legates came to England they seem to have seized eagerly on the wrong 
ends of any number of sticks. In 786 legates reported to Pope Hadrian 
that the English settled legal disputes by casting lots, and were accus- 



tomed to mutilate and eat their horses - a likely tale ! Some of the papal 
letters which have survived betray a bewildering ignorance of English 
conditions. Thus about 877 Pope John vm boasted that he had 'ad- 
monished' King Alfred, the best friend the Church in England ever had, 
for infringing the rights of Canterbury. No doubt Alfred had been 
insisting on the legal military service from Church lands - natural 
enough at a time when the kingdom, and indeed the Church itself, was 
in mortal peril from the Danes. About 891 Pope Formosus wrote a 
querulous letter to the English bishops complaining that he had heard 
'the abominable rites of the pagans have sprouted again in your parts', 
and adding that he had considered placing the country under an in- 
terdict; it would be difficult to conceive of a more complete misappre- 
hension of the true situation in England, then being ravaged by what 
the Chronicle calls 'the great heathen army'. Even more irritating must 
have been the letter Alfred received from Fulk, Archbishop of Reims, 
in response to a royal request (accompanied by the present of a fine 
pack of wolfhounds) that Fulk should lend him the services of the 
scholar Grimbald. With unctuous condescension, Fulk emphasises his 
hesitation (happily overcome by the gift) at committing a civilised and 
pious Frenchman to the care of such a 'rude and barbarous race' as the 

These misunderstandings continued, despite the fact that England was 
one of the few countries which regularly provided Rome with funds in 
solid sterling silver. At any rate, in 1066 there was a general impression 
in western Europe that the English Church was in a disgraceful con- 
dition, and that it would be an act of piety to invade the country and 
bring the English up to Continental standards. William may or may not 
have shared this view, but he played on it skilfully to improve his own 
chances. In Normandy itself he had used the Church to consolidate his 
position as duke, and he had a high reputation in Rome as a reforming 
sovereign. Rome, under the influence of Archdeacon Hildebrand, was 
then stirring with a new movement to assert universalist papal claims, 
and was anxious to play politics everywhere. When the Confessor died, 
William had the audacity to take his case to Rome. He insisted that 
Harold had broken his oath; and that his coronation was illegal be- 
cause (so William said) he had been crowned by Stigand, who held his 

* Whether Formosus or Fulk had the right to rebuke anyone is doubtful. After For- 
mosus died, his body was dug up by a rival papal faction, put on trial, condemned, 
mutilated and thrown into the Tiber. The insufferable Fulk fared no better. In goo he 
quarrelled with Baldwin of Flanders, Alfred's son-in-law, and was murdered by the 
count's men. In the next generation his province was treated as a plaything by the 
depraved women who then controlled the papacy, and a five-year-old child was appointed 
to his archbishopric. Such things did not occur among the 'barbarous* English. 



see uncanonically; that the English Church was virtually in schism, 
and that its restoration to orthodoxy and godliness would be a natural 
consequence of the successful establishment of his claim. None of this 
was true, but it was what Rome wanted to hear. So William's claims 
were pressed by Hildebrand himself before an eager pontiff. Harold was 
not invited to be represented, may not even have heard of the suit until 
after the decision went against him. William thus went to England not 
only with the emotional support of Rome but with its explicit and 
formal authority; he fought under a papal banner, and carried into 
battle a string of papal relics round his neck. The Emperor, the King of 
France and most of the other potentates of Europe endorsed his claim, 
and he fought Hastings as the champion of Continental Catholicism. 
Philip ii of Spain could not have asked for more. 

Whether William took himself seriously as a crusader is doubtful, but 

if be did his views underwent a mighty and marvellous conversion 

once he found himself safely established on the English throne. The 

rapidity with which he acquired an English perspective testifies to his 

political realism, and must have come as an unpleasant surprise to 

Hildebrand, who was now Pope himself. When he instructed his legate 

to demand from William both the resumption of payments to Rome and 

a formal act of homage, the King sent him a letter which was brief 

and very much to the point. The Pope could have the money but 

nothing else: 'I have not consented to pay fealty, nor will I now, 

because I never promised it, nor do I find that my predecessors ever 

paid it to your predecessors/ The English kings had always governed 

the Church of England, and William laid down a string of regulations 

making it plain he intended to follow, and indeed reinforce, custom. 

He made indeed one serious mistake by allowing Church courts to be 

established for the first time; his motive was purely practical, for he 

felt that Church business was cluttering up the work of the county 

courts, but it was an error of judgment which caused immense trouble 

to his successors. In all other respects, however, he resisted the Hilde- 

brandine aggression. 

So, to their credit, did his sons William and Henry. William n has 
had his reputation blackened by monkish scribes, who then possessed a 
monopoly of the writing of history; he suffered from the further 
disadvantage of having red hair, always a handicap to politicians.* 

* Three red-haired prime ministers, Peel, Baldwin and Churchill, all had trouble from 
their own parties, and it is difficult to explain on purely rational grounds the intense 
suspicion they aroused. Barbara Castle suffered from the same misfortune when trying 
to get her trade union bill before parliament in 1969 ; I have heard one trade union leader 
refer to her as 'that red-headed '. His language would have been more guarded had she 
been Jewish or coloured. 



He was accused of effeminacy, though he was a first-class and very 
active soldier, rarely out of the saddle; and of homosexuality, though he 
fathered two bastards. He was in fact a king cast in the Conqueror's 
mould, shrewd, industrious, energetic and highly professional. It is 
significant that the Conqueror preferred him to his brothers, and gave 
him the kingdom. His early death in a hunting accident robbed England 
of a great king. But he lacked his father's polish, and his celebrity, and 
the respect the old man aroused through close association with the 
reform movement. He swore in public, and his oaths - 'by the Holy 
Cross of Lucca', 'by St Luke's face' - were notorious. He viewed the 
Church with a certain cynicism, contrasting its extravagant claims 
with the manifest failings of many of its senior office holders. He had a 
Jewish doctor and was friendly with the Jewish community; he chal- 
lenged them to convert him - a joke felt to be in very bad taste. So far 
as the bishops were concerned, William treated them like other tenants- 
in-chief: they must make their full contribution to the services of 
government, military and financial. As they were immune to the 
accidents of wardship and marriage, an important source of royal reven- 
ue, he kept their sees vacant for long periods, and took the proceeds 
himself. It was a rough and ready method, which aroused the fury of the 
clericalists. William was unscrupulous; but so were they. They were not 
only sharp lawyers but skilful forgers. Monks tampered with their 
charters, even fabricated entirely new ones; rings of professional forgers 
operated on both sides of the Channel; the clerks of the Lateran Palace 
were the greatest forgers of all. The more extreme papal lawyers had 
the audacity to argue that no document of secular origins should be 
quoted as authoritative. It is no accident that, about this time, the 
English State began to keep its records systematically, as religious 
establishments had long done; the Exchequer probably came 
into existence in William's reign. The State was defending itself, 
a little belatedly, against a movement not unlike twentieth-century 
Communism, combining militant idealism with systematic mendacity. 
While recovering from an illness, perhaps while still delirious, William 
had appointed an Italian scholar, Anselm, to succeed Lanfranc at 
Canterbury. Anselm was a pious intellectual, unsuited to a role of great 
worldly responsibility. His outlook was wholly Continental; he never 
seems to have grasped the peculiar structure of the English State, and 
the traditional place of the Church within it. Once in office, he revealed 
himself as an ardent papalist, fixing his narrow, philosopher's mind on 
delicate and abstruse points of principle to the exclusion of every other 
consideration, including common sense. William wanted straightfor- 
ward dealing from his prelates; what he got from Anselm was a babble 


of canon law; as William saw it, it was as though the regimental 
chaplain was trying to teach the Commanding Officer military law. So 
Anselm went into voluntary exile, declaring with the serenity of the 
fanatic: 'I would not dare to appear before the judgment seat of God 
with the rights of my see diminished/ Using the terse language of his 
father, William wrote to Pope Urban n : 

I am astonished you should take it upon yourself to intercede for Anselm's 
restoration. Before he left my kingdom I warned him I would seize all the 
revenues of his see if he departed. I have done what I threatened, and what 
I have a right to do, and you are wrong to blame me. 

It is clear that William had majority opinion in England on his side, 
including nearly all the bishops : and it is significant that his successor 
and brother, Henry i, who went to considerable lengths to treat the 
Church with courtesy and respect, was soon driven into exactly the 
same disputes with Anselm, and reacted in exactly the same manner.* 
The truth is that no English king who sought to uphold the rights of 
the State, as established for centuries, could afford to compromise with 
Continental papalism. Only when, under Stephen, the State was weak- 
ened by internal disputes, did the Continentalists make progress. 

By resisting the encroachments of an international organisation based 
on Rome, the Norman conquerors thus maintained the continuum of 
English historical development. They did so in a number of other im- 
portant respects. Generations of historians have analysed the merging 
of English and Normans in terms of moral, racial and cultural suprem- 
acy, and taken sides accordingly. They thus tend to cover themselves 
in ridicule. Take, for instance, Carlyle, a confirmed 'Norman' : 

Without the Normans what had England ever been? A gluttonous race of 
Jutes and Angles capable of no great combination; lumbering about in pot- 
bellied equanimity; not dreaming of heroic toil and silence and endurance, 
such as lead to the high places of the Universe, and the golden mountain-tops 
where dwell the spirits of the Dawn. 

Freeman, an 'Anglo-Saxon', went to the opposite extreme: 

We must recognize the spirit which dictated the Petition of Right as the 
same which gathered all England round the banners of Godwin, and remember 
that the 'good old cause* was truly that for which Harold died on the field and 
Waltheof on the scaffold. 

The argument persists even among sophisticated and erudite historians 

* The monkish scribes gave Henry a better press than his brother William. Yet his 
morals were certainly worse; he fathered at least 19 bastards, more than any other 
English monarch. 



today. But a more realistic approach is to see England in terms of the 
institutions and manner of life shaped by her geographical predicament. 
These are more powerful factors than racial habits. What the Normans 
found in England was a unitary society, underpinned by a sophisticated 
legal system and a strong popular monarchy. They embraced this 
valuable inheritance, they identified themselves with it, they developed 
it; they did not fundamentally change it. They certainly did not impose 
an abstract conception called 'the feudal system'.* In terms of land 
tenures, English and north-west European society had been developing 
on roughly similar lines since the eighth century. The difference lay in 
the fact that English State administration was organised on a civil basis, 
made possible by the barriers of the Channel and the North Sea; Con- 
tinental states, with fluid and insecure land frontiers, were forced to 
organise themselves on a military basis. William I and his successors 
could not entirely free themselves from their Continental background; 
and thus to some extent they changed the viewpoint of English ad- 
ministration. Old English Society was essentially agricultural in out- 
look; the society William represented was military. The English had 
flourished by taming the land, the Normans by taming men. Thus they 
approached administration, and above all fiscal obligations, from differ- 
ent angles. The acre, the hide, the hundred, the shire: these were the 
English units of computation. But of course they were fiscal, not actual 
units. The Norman unit was military : the armoured knight. The number 
of these who could be provided or paid for was their measure of wealth 
and therefore fiscal obligation. And since the knights, in practice, 
served under the banners of great lords, the Normans saw the country- 
side, for administrative purposes, as a collection of great estates, owned 
by responsible individuals, rather than as territorial units, where 
responsibility was collective. But of course the knight, like the hundred, 
was a notional or fiscal concept, rather than an actual knight, in real 
armour, riding a living horse. Once this distinction is understood we 
can dispense with the word feudal, which is merely confusing in English 
terms. The purpose of Norman, as of English, administration was 
primarily to raise money. The English did this on a territorial, the 
Normans on a personal, basis. Thus the information for Domesday 
was first gathered territorially, then rearranged for each shire under 

* They may have known the word feodal, meaning the tenant of a fief (in Latin, 
feudum), but 'feudalism', had such a concept existed, would have been a meaningless 
abstraction to them. Phrases and ideas such as 'feudal England', 'the feudal army', and 
so forth, are the inventions of antiquaries. The term 'feudal' does not occur in print until 
1614; since then historians have used it freely, to the confusion of innocent school- 
children. It is more appropriately employed, if at all, for purposes of indiscriminate 
journalistic abuse, as in 'the feudal magnates of the Jockey Club', etc. 



tenants-in-chief; for it was on persons, not communities, that the 
Normans placed the responsibility. 

But this change was more a matter of habit and attitude than a 
fundamentally different way of doing things. The English instinct was 
that the army should consist of the local men of each region fighting 
side by side as conscript territorials: the Norman was that great 
landowners should produce the men in respect of the property they 
held under the King. But neither system, or course, ever worked in 
practice. The English and Anglo-Norman States both created armies, 
when it came to the point, in more or less the same way: by hiring mer- 
cenaries, and by adding to them such local elements as were fit for battle. 
The two rival conceptual systems were thus, in reality, two slightly 
different ways of raising money to pay for professional troops. There 
was no other means of getting an effective army into the field, or keep- 
ing it there long enough to serve its purpose. 

This purpose, of course, was the maintenance of the integrity of the 
State from its external and internal enemies. The English might grumble 
at royal taxation, the weight of which they attributed, quite wrongly, 
to Norman innovation. But William and his successors, by virtue of 
their ability to command the military situation, itself dependent on 
the continuous flow of cash, set very high standards of government. 
They grasped the full potential of the royal institution they inherited, 
and gave it new vitality. The Old English State had been running down 
in the eleventh century. The growth of regional earldoms, the relative 
decline in royal revenues, were accompanied by an immense and de- 
pressing conservatism which finds expression in innumerable charters 
and documents. The vigorous impulses of Alfred and his immediate 
successors had been wholly expended. It was as though Old English 
society was turning its back on the real world, and looking inwards on 
itself. Edward the Confessor himself set the tone : 

I Edward, by divine mercy King of the whole English nation, counting the 
perishable things of this world as worth nothing, and, with all creatures of 
passage, desiring to obtain these things that last for ever, hasten to grant a 
fugitive and doubtless transitory little estate in order that I may obtain in 
the kingdom of Christ and of God an everlasting dwelling-place. 

This was all very pious ; but an attitude fatal to strong, central govern- 
ment of the type the English want and need. Bede would have dis- 
approved. Excessive Continentalism has always been a danger to the 
English ; but so has excessive isolationism. The advent of the Normans 
was a necessary corrective. The territorial convulsion which followed 
Hastings not only arrested but reversed the erosion of the royal estates. 



The Conqueror was a man born into the harsh Continental world of 
incessant warfare and fragile security. He appreciated, perhaps better 
than the English themselves, how difficult it was to achieve the internal 
stability they enjoyed, how easily it could be jeopardised, and how 
vital therefore to maintain and strengthen the institution of centralised 
monarchy in all its plenitude. He was a king in the English tradition, 
but a much more effective one than his immediate predecessors. And 
his sons built upon his work, blending Continental innovations, in the 
Exchequer and Chancery, with the structure of the Old English ad- 
ministrative machine, to produce the most formidable instrument of 
royal government in Europe. 

The result was a progressive rise in English living-standards. Other 
factors certainly helped: the period 1050-1300 was one of the warmest 
and most favourable climatic periods in historic times;* international 
trade was reviving. The area under cultivation was steadily expanding. 
The towns were growing; so was the population as a whole. With all 
deliberate speed, the Anglo-Norman State abolished agrarian slavery, 
which had persisted in conservative England long after it had virtually 
disappeared on the Continent. Under the old regime, exalted members 
of the royal house had openly engaged in the slave-trade, f The Anglo- 
Norman monarchs, by contrast, would not give it countenance, and 
their courts were readily available to terminate servitude. They were 
also at the disposal of the ordinary villein, or peasant tied to his lord's 
land, unless the proof of his status was explicit. Improvements in 
legal administration, springing from a reinvigorated central govern- 
ment, tended to sharpen definitions and define obligations more closely; 
in that sense of course the villein found it more difficult to wriggle out 
of his dues. But there is no evidence that the freedom of the ordinary 
villager was greatly curtailed as a result of Norman rule ; the damage 
had already been done in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is more 
likely that he saw the law, if he could afford it, as his road to freedom. 
In any event, the restructuring of English landed society in the late 
eleventh century, by emphasising exactions at all levels, tended to 
increase agrarian productivity - the only way in which the medieval 
world could escape from its economic prison of subsistence living. 
The coming of the Normans thus gave a salutary forward-impulse to the 
progress of the English; but it did not change the direction. 

The Conqueror evidently did not believe it possible, or desirable, that 

* See H.H. Lamb: The Changing Climate (1966). 

f They were not alone. William of Malmeibury, a patriotic Englishman, says that the 
English nobility were accustomed 'to sell their female servants, when pregnant by them, 
after they had satisfied their lust, either to public prostitution or to foreign slavery*. 



the English State should be linked permanently, under the same head of 
government, to large Continental possessions. To his most responsible 
son, William, he gave the kingdom; his heir by primogeniture, Robert, 
got the Duchy of Normandy. In the long run events were to prove 
William i right. But in the short run the folly of Robert led to the 
reunification of the two territories; and for over a century England was 
politically a part of the Continental system.* This had a marked effect on 
the development of the English language. Had the Conqueror's will 
been enacted, the Channel would have constituted a political as well as a 
linguistic barrier, and English would rapidly have become the language 
of the Anglo-Norman ruling class. But Normandy was not lost until 
1204, and in the meantime French had become - and would long remain 
- the vernacular of administration, at any rate at the highest levels. 
Of course the mass of the English people never learnt French. The evid- 
ence for the Domesday survey, for instance, was presented by English 
and French sworn juries, before being recorded in Latin; to some 
extent administration had to be bilingual. But government itself was 
French-speaking: one reason why English notables played no effective 
part in it was that they could not participate in the lengthy political 
debates, conducted in French, which took place at the King's court. 
Englishmen who rose in society thus became French-speaking; the 
linguistic division followed social rather than racial lines; a French 
literature sprang up in England, and the French dialect spoken there 
showed early and marked divergencies from Continental French. 

But many members of the ruling class were bilingual. It was clearly a 
great practical advantage. Henry I certainly knew some English; 
Henry n understood it perfectly, though he preferred to speak in French 
or Latin. Some Continental ecclesiastics learnt not only to speak English 
but to read Old English texts and documents. It depended, of course, 
on whether a man was born and raised in England; if so, English was 
likely to be his first tongue. The historian Odericus Vitalis, born in 
England under the Conqueror of a Norman father and an English 
mother, had to learn French from scratch when he went to Normandy 
at the age of ten. By the end of the twelfth century a man occupying an 
important administrative position was open to censure if he spoke no 

* Robert finally lost Normandy to Henry i in 1 106 and spent the remaining 30 years of 
his life in English gaols. He may have learnt Welsh while shut up in Cardiff Castle; a 
Welsh poem attributed to him laments the fate of those 'who are not old enough to die*. 
He is buried in Gloucester Cathedral, under a splendid effigy of coloured wood. He thus 
fared better than his father, whose magnificent tomb in Caen was rifled by Calvinists 
in 1562 ; a single thighbone was preserved, and reburied under a new monument; but this, 
in turn, was demolished by the revolutionaries in 1793. Only a simple stone slab now 
commemorates England's greatest king. 



English at all. Even before this all obvious racial distinctions had 
disappeared, and the language division was increasingly functional. 
Richard Fitz-Nigel, treasurer of the Exchequer, writing about 1179, 
stated: 'With the English and Normans dwelling together and alterna- 
tively marrying and giving in marriage, the races have become so fused 
that it can scarcely be discerned at the present day - I speak of free- 
men alone - who is English and who is Norman by race/ 

After the loss of Normandy, when men who held lands on both sides 
of the Channel were forced to chose a single allegiance, the dynamic 
behind the continued use of French rapidly disappeared. Long before 
this we hear of complaints from men of the highest rank that castles 
should not be entrusted to aliens, and that English heiresses should 
not be married to men whose birth would disparage them, 'that is, to 
men not of the nation of the realm of England'. French lingered on as a 
class distinction. Paradoxically, it was the sheer conservatism of the 
English, especially of lawyers and civil servants, which kept French alive 
as the administrative vernacular. By 1400 we find English textbooks 
purporting to teach French to the upper classes. Evidently by then no 
one learned it from birth, but it was still used, in a fossilised form, for 
many purposes of law and government. But even in the thirteenth 
century some statutes were written in English as well as in French and 
Latin. In the fourteenth century, war, nationalism and racism com- 
pleted the destruction of French. In 1356 the mayor and aldermen of 
London ordered that proceedings in their courts should be conducted 
in English. Six years later Parliament was opened for the first time by a 
speech in English; and it enacted the Statute of Pleading, laying down 
that henceforth, as French 'is much unknown in the said realm', 

... the King . . . hath ordained . . . that all pleas which shall be pleaded in 
his courts whatsoever, before any of his justices whatsoever, or in his other 
places, or before any of his other ministers whatsoever, or in the courts and 
places of other lords whatsoever in the realm, shall be pleaded, showed, 
defended, answered, debated and judged in the English tongue, and that they 
be entered and enrolled in Latin. 

This conquest by the English language, it should be noted, took place 
against fierce resistance from authority, for French was the spoken, 
as Latin was the written, language of international culture : in particular, 
the lawyers and the universities fought a vigorous rearguard action 
against English. In the last decade of the thirteenth century the mon- 
asteries at Canterbury and Westminster adopted regulations forbidding 
novices to use English and requiring all conversation to be in French; a 
fourteenth-century Oxford statute ordered construing in French 'lest the 



French language be entirely disused' ; the complaint was made that at 
Merton College the fellows talked English (and wore 'dishonest shoes'). 
But by 1400 the battle was over; French was wholly, and for all except 
some legal purposes, a foreign language. 

Meanwhile English had derived enormous benefit from this process. 
As it began to emerge again as the language of business, it became 
necessary to transfer to it a large number of key French words used in 
administration, justice and the general preoccupations of the ruling 
class. It is notable that most of these words were adopted by English 
during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the use of French 
was in rapid decline. The total number of French words absorbed during 
the Middle English period was slightly over 10,000, of which 75 per cent 
are still in current use. Over 40 per cent of the 10,000 came in during the 
period 1250-1400; in the years 1350-1400 twice as many French words 
were adopted than in any other half-century.* This great enrichment 
in vocabulary was accompanied by internal changes in the structure 
of the language which were even more important. The Wessex dialect, 
the language of government in the Old English State, was both clumsy 
and highly conservative. The Conquest dealt it a death-blow. The 
English which emerged as the official (and therefore, eventually, as the 
universal) form in the later Middle Ages was essentially based on the 
Mercian dialect as spoken in the south-east Midlands, and above all in 
London. It was far more flexible and capable of dynamic growth. Old 
English, as written and spoken before the Conquest, is essentially 
a foreign language to us; the so-called Middle English, as we read it in 
Chaucer, is merely an archaic version of our own. The Norman invasion 
thus made a crucial contribution to the development of English as the in- 
ternational language of government, culture and commerce - in which 
role, by a supreme irony, it has decisively displaced French. 

In the year 1153 two of the greatest territorial magnates in England, the 
Earls of Chester and Leicester, sat down at a table with their clerks to 
draw up a treaty between themselves. Its text has fortunately survived, 
and has a curious interest. It lays down in considerable detail how front- 
ier disputes, and other matters of contention between the two earls and 

* Many were duplicates of Old English words; in the later Middle Ages, members of the 
upper class, and still more those aspiring to such status, used French derivatives by 
preference. This process has recently been reversed. Use of French derivations, as 
opposed to 'honest* and 'earthy* English words, is said to be 'non-U', and an affectation 
denoting suburban gentility. Thus, one should say 'looking-glass* not 'mirror'. But such 
distinctions lead to confusion: 'lavatory* is claimed to be socially preferable to 'toilet', 
though both are of French origin. 



their dependants, were to be resolved. The King is mentioned only once, 
and then merely by implication. At first glance, it is as though the English 
State did not exist, and any form of stability was entirely dependent 
upon the personal exertions of independent local sovereigns, and the 
arrangements they made between each other. Yet first impressions are 
deceptive. This document, and the motives which inspired it, are not a 
testimony of anarchy; on the contrary, they are a tribute to the intense 
longing in England for some kind of system of law and order. These two 
great Anglo-Norman princes were trying, as best they might, to devise 
a set of club rules to fill a legal vacuum. They were not renouncing the 
State: they were endeavouring to reinforce its weakened authority. The 
treaty was written in Latin; its terms were debated and settled by 
arguments conducted in Norman-French; but the instincts of its authors 
were those of responsible Englishmen. It was only 80 years or so after 
the Conquest, but already the men who mattered among the Anglo- 
Norman ruling class were behaving with the reflexes of true offshore 

The alleged 'anarchy' of Stephen's reign is one of the most interesting, 
and instructive, episodes in English history. It was the deviation which 
supplies the true key to the norm. It aroused a sense of outrage, 
among Englishmen of all classes, out of all proportion to the weight of 
the facts as they can now be discovered. Of course it was unfortunate 
that Henry I's son and heir should have been drowned, thanks to a 
drunken crew, in the Titanic-tike accident of the White Ship.* It was 
still more unfortunate that Henry should then have tried to force, on a 
reluctant populace, his daughter Matilda as his heiress. She had been 
brought up at the German imperial court, and her intolerable Germanic 
manners were resented by all classes; moreover, Henry promptly re- 
married her to the heir to the House of Anjou, whom the Anglo-Normans 

* The distinguished passengers were all drunk too. When Stephen saw this he refused 
to travel on the ship, and thus lived to be an unhappy king. Drunkenness was not sup- 
posed to be a Norman vice, but an English one. Perhaps by this time many Normans had 
adopted English habits. William of Malmesbury says of the English: 'Drinking in parties 
was a universal custom, in which occupation they passed entire days and nights . . . they 
were wont to eat until they became surfeited, and drink until they were sick.' He blames 
the loss of the Battle of Hastings on drink. By contrast, the Normans were abstemious, 
though they liked delicate cuisine. William the Conqueror drank little, and mixed water 
with his wine ; Henry I 'drank simply to allay his thirst, and he deplored the least lapse 
into drunkenness both in himself and others'. Another account says he never 'drank more 
than thrice after dinner*. But Walter Map, in his account of Henry's court, said there was 
a standing order for a carafe of wine to be put in Henry's bedroom at night. As he never 
called for it, the servants drank it ; one night Henry asked for his wine, and it was not 
there. Royalty does not vary much. At Balmoral, a whole bottle of whisky was put out 
for Queen Victoria's use every night ; she never touched it, and for decades it became a 
perk of the servants. On his accession, Edward vn discovered the practice and ended it. 



regarded as hereditary enemies. In the circumstances, it was only 
natural that Stephen, one of the Conqueror's grandsons, the richest 
landowner in north-west Europe, with half a million acres on this side 
of the Channel alone, should snatch at the throne, and get it. He was not, 
as it turned out, a suitable choice. He was, says the Chronicle, 'soft'! 
He lacked 'a hearty voice', and could not give orders on the battlefield 
himself, using a spokesman instead. He was indecisive. There is an apolo- 
getic note in some of his charters ; in one, issued to Worcester Cathedral, 
he admits having made a wrong decision by failing to take proper 
advice. On the other hand, he could be arbitrary, and act without 
due legal procedures. He was good-natured, especially to children, 
chivalrous and open-handed. He certainly tried hard. The sheer physical 
demands made on early medieval kings were always extraordinary; 
Stephen, in particular, was a martyr to duty. In 1139, f r instance, he 
made at least 34 major journeys, covering virtually the whole kingdom, 
and took part in five major sieges; he was in the saddle in all weathers 
and at all seasons. He died exhausted and disillusioned with power, and 
it is not surprising that his surviving son renounced his claims for a 
financial settlement. But despite his efforts Stephen failed to maintain 
a unitary kingdom. Matilda's claims were put forward; there was a 
certain amount of fighting of an inconclusive nature; and the English, 
with one voice, cried 'Anarchy!' 

Now this was a monstrous distortion of events. The famous passage in 
the Peterborough version of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our most 
striking authority for this reign, paints an appalling picture of chaos and 
savagery. It speaks of 'nineteen terrible winters' when 'Christ and his 
saints slept', and describes in devastating detail the dreadful tortures 
and wickedness inflicted on the people when the State abdicated and 
desperadoes took over. It has become the received version of history, 
much quoted and enjoyed by generations of law-abiding Englishmen 
ever since, and cited as a warning of what happens when central govern- 
ment breaks down. Yet the passage is certainly a gross exaggeration; 
its details may be pure fiction. Peterborough was one of the few areas 
where government had, in fact, ceased to operate effectively. But 
immediately following the famous description of chaos is a long account 
of how prosperous and wealthy Peterborough Abbey was throughout 
this period; and this in turn is followed by a disgusting anti-semitic 
story, which is devoid of foundation. As an account of Stephen's reign, 
this final section of the Peterborough version of the Chronicle is almost 

What are the facts ? The actual fighting in the 'civil war' was of little 
importance. It took place chiefly in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire for a 


few years in the middle of the reign. Matilda never controlled anything 
which could be called a government. Those baronial thugs who operated 
outside the law, such as Geoffrey de Mandeville, had short careers and 
met violent ends. Their illegal castles were flimsy affairs, which have 
left little trace. In many shires the laws of King Henry I were adminis- 
tered effectively from start to finish. The Chancery continued to function, 
though with a diminished staff and a smaller volume of business. So did 
the Exchequer, though its shortcomings under Stephen were naturally 
exaggerated by the men who claimed credit for getting it back into full 
working order under Hemy 11. Stephen did his best to maintain the 
currency; some of his seven issues were small, and others light-weight, 
and many irregular coins were minted; but there was no calamitous 
devaluation, as the chroniclers imply. Even where central government 
failed, local great men kept their territories at peace, like the two earls. 
Few Englishmen, or indeed Normans, were killed. Apart from the 
personal retinues of certain great barons, the fighting was conducted by 
Welsh mercenaries (for the Empress) and Flemings and Bretons (for 
Stephen). It is remarkable that even in the most disrupted areas, abbeys 
such as Malmesbury and Tewkesbury carried out ambitious and costly 
building schemes at this time; more monastic buildings were started 
or finished, and more religious houses founded, during Stephen's reign 
than ever before. 

The hullabaloo, indeed, was set up not because the English experi- 
enced anarchy, but because they came close enough to it to sense how 
appalling it might be if the State really did abdicate its functions. 
England was more stable, and better governed, during King Stephen's 
reign than any other territory in north-west Europe. What frightened 
the English was the way in which their country was slithering towards 
the Continental norm. They over-reacted, in what seems in retrospect a 
hysterical fashion. But this sprang from a sound instinct. Conditions in 
Stephen's reign were sufficiently disturbing to convince great masses 
of people, of all classes, that the decline must be instantly and dramatic- 
ally reversed. Thus Henry 11 came to the throne with an overwhelming 
mandate for strong government, which he was delighted to exercise. 
The English, once again, had engaged in a skilful exercise in the re- 
writing of contemporary history to suit their own purposes. William I's 
work in rebuilding the Old English monarchy was therefore continued 
by an Angevin who became a thorough offshore islander in his turn. 
The universal satisfaction which greeted his accession showed that the 
English put effective central government, operating on traditional lines 
of law and custom, before any other consideration. The Conquest was 
now a distant memory, the Old English line mere folklore; racial pride 



found greater satisfaction in the tales of King Arthur and his knights 
than in the consciousness of a more recent past. 'Normalcy' meant 
the good old days of Henry I. The new King was judged by his ability 
to bring them back. The aristocracy was no longer alien; just upper- 
class. Stephen's reign gave a glimpse of the terrifying prospect if they 
were called upon to assume a Continental role. Henry n, by restoring 
the prestige of the Crown, by refurbishing and improving the machinery 
of government, once more emphasised the distance between the King 
and all his subjects, irrespective of class, which is the foundation of 
equality before the law, and so the precondition of national and racial 
unity. It was as subjects that Normans and English came together; and 
since the framework of this subjection was essentially the Old English 
State and law, it was the Normans who became Englishmen. The con- 
nection with the Continent was maintained; but its nature and limits 
were laid down firmly and exclusively on this side of the Channel. 



'This 1(ealm is an Empire' 


IN January 1308 King Edward n, at the request of the Pope, ordered 
the arrest of all the Knights Templars in England, sequestered their 
property, and appointed commissions (which included certain papal 
inquisitors) to sit at London and York to try them on charges of heresy and 
moral depravity. The Templars were largely, if not wholly, innocent of 
the charges against them, which they hotly denied. Their fault was that 
they belonged to a rich order; from their original function as custodians 
of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, they had become wealthy bankers 
and the owners of substantial estates throughout Christendom. Their 
French possessions were particularly valuable, and had attracted the 
greedy attention of Philip iv of France. He wanted their money and their 
lands, and he had sufficient leverage over the Pope to force him into 
ordering a general dissolution of the order. The Pope complied, and 
the trials were held to provide moral justification for an act of blatant 

The English had no particular animus against the knights. But like 
any other wealthy churchmen, they were not popular in England, and 
their lands were tempting targets. So the commissions were set up. But 
then came, for the English, a difficulty. How could the knights be made 
to confess? The only conceivable way was to torture them. This was 
what was done, with little hesitation, in France and elsewhere. The 
bishops of the southern province, meeting in London, were eventually 
persuaded to seek permission to use torture; but the inquisitors who 
attended them complained they could find no one in England to do the 
work. At York, the northern bishops were outraged: they said that 
torture was unknown in England, and quite illegal; that they did not 
employ torturers, and had no idea where to find them. Were they 
supposed to import them from abroad? Let the Pope, or the King of 
France, do his own dirty work. A strong note of English indignation - a 
thrill of horror at the wickedness and barbarity of foreigners - runs 
through this curious episode. In legal matters, in respect for certain 
inalienable principles of decency in the administration of the law, the 
English already placed themselves on a different, and higher, plane than 
men across the Channel: there were some things not done in England, 
things which Englishmen could not be brought to do. But at the same 
time the English, then as now, were pragmatists, with a streak of what 
their critics would call hypocrisy. Having made their protest, they set 



to work. After all, the Templars were a foreign order ; their wealth did no 
good to England; if the Pope, in his wisdom, wanted it disposed of, then 
who were the English to refuse? So the trials took place. Exactly how 
the confessions were obtained is not clear. But they were eventually 
forthcoming. English honour was satisfied; and so, in time, was English 
avarice. Most of the Templars' property - which, according to the Pope, 
should have gone to the Knights of St John - was quietly absorbed by 
the English Crown. Leaving the issue of torture aside, a remarkable pre- 
cedent had been set, of sinister implications for the Pope, for the reli- 
gious orders as a whole, and for Roman Catholicism. Its significance was 
not lost on Englishmen : it passed into the national memory, for con- 
venient use at some future time. 

But the precedent of using torture was not followed. More than two 
centuries later, the great judge and legalist Sir John Fortescue, writing 
on the laws of England, stated emphatically that torture was not per- 
missible under English law; it was, he said, one of the respects in which 
English law was superior to foreign systems. That Fortescue reflected 
not just legal opinion but the overwhelming sentiment of the English 
people was shown, at the time, by the popular fury aroused by John 
Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. Tiptoft was the most accomplished lay 
scholar of his age. He had travelled widely in the Near East and Mediter- 
ranean, and had spent two years at Italian universities. Returning to 
England, he was a harbinger of the Renaissance and, in this context, an 
important figure in English cultural history. But Tiptoft had brought 
certain other ideas and practices back with him, which seemed to the 
English altogether more significant, and wholly evil. He had absorbed 
rather too much of the Continental 'culture'. As Edward iv's justiciar, 
he found the English common and statute law inadequate for his pur- 
poses of suppressing the Lancastrian cause. In 1462 he had the Earl of 
Oxford and Aubrey de Vere tried and condemned by what the English 
wrongly called 'law padowe' (Paduan law), an outlandish and intoler- 
able importation, which denied the Englishman his traditional rights of 
defence. The trial was no more unfair than many others of the period 
conducted according to the customary process. But it caused deep anger, 
and the execution of the two men was regarded as simple murder. In 
1468 Tiptoft had two Lancastrian agents, Cornelius and Hawkins, 
examined under torture - the first time such a practice had been per- 
mitted under the aegis of the law. Then, two years later, he introduced 
the punishment of impalement for traitors : a form of execution no more 
barbarous than those hallowed by English tradition, but Italian in 
origin and (it seems) utterly repugnant to the hardened and blood- 
thirsty London mob. When Tiptoft himself fell the same year, and was 



carried to execution at Tower Hill, a mass of heavily armed soldiers had 
to protect him from a lynch-crowd, which screamed out : 'The butcher of 
England/ Few judicial murders (it was little better than that) in English 
history have given more general pleasure, and Tiptoft lingered on in 
popular folklore as a cultured and alien monster. The irony is that he 
almost certainly saw himself as a civilised legal reformer, providing the 
benighted and unruly English with the benefit of the latest Continental 

The extraordinary attachment of the English to their system of law 
(if indeed it can be called a system), the positive affection it inspires, the 
awe-inspiring confidence, often unwarranted, which they repose in its 
ability to do justice, the tenacity - indeed ferocity - with which they 
resist attempts to modify it with foreign importations, is one of the most 
enduring national characteristics. In a sense, the law is the only true 
English religion - the only body of doctrine in which the great mass of 
ordinary Englishmen have consistently and passionately believed. It is 
impossible to turn to any period of English history, where written records 
survive, without finding striking evidence of a huge and dogged con- 
viction in the adequacy of the law if only, and this is the vital qualifica- 
tion, it is administered according to tradition and custom. Complaints 
about the law are purely conservative in nature. It is not being observed. 
It has fallen into disuse. It is being obscured and perverted by innova- 
tion. Grievances are strident and incessant: but they are invariably 
directed against agents - kings, justices, sheriffs - not against the law 
itself. It has a pristine virtue which will always shine through, provided 
modern accretions are periodically removed. 

Now this English attitude to the law poses a delicate problem to any 
English government which wishes to improve it, or even to make it 
work at all. The concept of an ancient and perfect legal framework is, 
of course, an illusion. Such a thing has never existed, could never exist. 
But the English conviction that it does and must exist is so strong that 
any approach to change must be made from a conservative standpoint. 
It must be introduced under the guise of putting the clock back to an 
imaginary period in which the law flourished in all its majesty. The 
only form of progression is to move backwards into the past - but a 
past so imaginatively reconstructed that, in reality, it contains the 
necessary elements of novelty. This is the essential principle behind the 
development of English law, indeed of English constitutional history as 
a whole. The present is reformed by rewriting the past in such a way that 
it becomes the future. Thus continuity is maintained, no one's prejudices 
are disturbed (they are seemingly endorsed), and a forward motion is 
achieved under the appearance of regression. It is a process which 



requires a contempt for logic, a degree of self-deception, and often 
barefaced hypocrisy, with all of which the English are richly endowed. 
It is with this principle in mind that we should look at the develop- 
ment of English law during the Middle Ages. Change is occurring all the 
time: but at no point can change be isolated from the body of custom, 
identified as novelty, and so objected to: on the contrary, it is disguised 
as reaction. The greatest English rulers had a positive genius for perfor- 
ming this conjuring trick. Consider the case of Henry 11, perhaps the 
most gifted of them all. No one could conceivably call him a radical. He 
was the richest and most heavily endowed monarch in Europe, the lord 
of half of France as well as England: no one had a bigger stake in the 
established order. His programme was ostensibly one of pure reaction. 
William I had confirmed the laws of Edward the Confessor; Henry i had 
done the same. Henry n inherited a kingdom which had come close to 
breakdown, because (it was universally believed) these laws had been 
ignored, or broken, or tampered with. Henry n's coronation charter 
thus promises to erase the 'nineteen terrible winters' of Stephen's 
reign by restoring conditions as they were when his grandfather was 
alive. Thus, in a sense, the imaginary golden age of the Confessor is to 
be recreated. 

But what was this golden age in precise terms ? No one knew. The 
corpus of English law, such as it was, was obscure and bewildering in its 
contradictions. The written versions of the Confessor's laws were 
rambling documents, often specific only on points already, in the n6os, 
irrelevant; the laws of Henry i were also largely useless for many 
practical purposes. The Normans had inherited three different systems 
of Old English law, in Wessex, Mercia and the Danelaw; they had added 
elements of their own; the Church was now energetically striving to 
insert the wedge of its own canonical system; and the resurrected 
principles of Roman law were attracting the enthusiasm of professional 
lawyers. How could these various elements be fused into a common 
system, so that everyone knew where they stood? And how could the 
law be modified, as and when required, to meet the needs of a society 
which was beginning to change with some speed ? 

The solution which Henry n in fact adopted was, in a sense, no 
solution at all: he simply embarked on a vigorous policy of law-enforce- 
ment, using himself as the principal instrument, but recruiting and 
employing a growing number of able men who acquired the expertise of 
professional judges, and who were sent on regular expeditions through 
the country to try cases. None of this was precisely an innovation; it 
was new only in its scope and thoroughness. The principle behind it was 
that if the law were consistently enforced, it would codify and rationalise 



itself by usage; the ubiquity of a centrally administered system would 
itself erode regional variations; and the experience of routine would 
automatically encourage judges to devise improved procedures which, 
in the guise of mere aids to efficiency, would in fact radically alter the 
law. All of this happened. Henry H carried out a legal revolution. But 
no one was aware of it. It was impossible to point to any one element in 
it which was not legitimised by earlier usage. Yet the law was fundamen- 
tally changed. 

Henry H, in fact, legislated by stealth. In 1166, at the great Assize 
held at Clarendon, he carried out a comprehensive inquiry into all crimes 
and suspicious happenings, all legal commissions and omissions, which 
had occurred, or were alleged to have occurred, since the beginning of 
his reign. It led to furious activity, on his own part and that of scores of 
professional justices, which virtually turned the kingdom upside down. 
Many copies of the document recording the Assize were drawn up and 
published throughout the country; it was in effect reissued in 1176 and 
1195, thus replacing Old English law-codes and their confused Anglo- 
Norman successors by a uniform system of common law applied to the 
whole country. It was, in reality, a statute which should, by rights, 
replace Magna Carta in the honoured place as the first of the Statutes of 
the Realm. Yet what, strictly speaking, was new about it to contem- 
poraries? The King had simply held an important court, as all his 
predecessors had done from time to time, and given detailed instructions 
for the law to be enforced, 'with the consent 1 , as the document says, 'of 
all his barons'. There was nothing revolutionary here: the only novel 
element was the scope of the action, and the vigour with which it was 
carried out. 

Again, take Henry n's famous 'petty assizes'. What was fundamen- 
tally wrong with English twelfth-century society, as he found it, was 
the terrifying uncertainty which surrounded rights and property. 
Economic relationships were becoming far more complex; land was 
changing hands rapidly by death, inheritance, subdivision, gift and 
sale. Many titles were in dispute, records non-existent, suspect, stolen 
or forged. The law was a clumsy apparatus. Often it might not work at 
all. Sometimes it took years to achieve any decisive result. A curious 
document has survived in which a landowner called Richard of Anstey 
noted down in immense detail the wearisome steps he had to take to 
secure from his uncle an inheritance which was also claimed by a 
bastard niece. It is a profoundly depressing account. The cost to Anstey 
was enormous: over 330, probably more than the total value of the 
estate; and the money, almost certainly, had to be raised on mortgage 
at rates of over 50 per cent. The temptation to resort to force as an 

8 7 


alternative to the law was always strong. A widow, a young heir, an 
heiress, anyone not in a position to defend their rights against swift and 
violent dispossession, might never get redress. It was the chief remedi- 
able cause of human misery. Where the dispute was complex, of course, 
there was little reform could do. But the vast majority of cases were 
open and shut ; all that was required was a simple legal device to make 
their settlement swift, simple and cheap. So Henry n and his advisers 
produced a series of short writs, applying to the commonest types of 
case, which could be bought from the Crown. If a man had been turfed 
out of his property, he bought a writ of 'novel disseisin', took it to the 
local authorities, went before a jury, and if they swore he had been 
ejected, he automatically got possession in the King's name and could 
claim damages. To get inheritance of his father's estates he applied for 
the writ 'mort d'ancester'] to prove his land was held by clerical or 
secular fee - a vital financial point - the writ 'utrum' ; to demonstrate 
his right to an advowson the writ 'darrein presentment'. In the last case 
the procedure, typical of the new technique, was simplicity itself. The 
jury was merely asked: 'Who presented last to the benefice?' When they 
gave their answer, the verdict was : The same or his heir should present 

These writs appealed strongly to every instinct of the English. Where 
was the innovation? There was none, or so it could be argued. King's 
writs had been issued for centuries, if not precisely for this purpose. 
Juries of local people had been summoned to establish facts for almost - 
if not quite - as long in such cases. The very notion of establishing a 
verdict simply on what had gone before was a profoundly conservative 
and satisfying principle. The three elements were all old; only the con- 
junction was new. So a precedent was successfully established, on a 
sound basis of ancient tradition, and a momentous revolution in English 
law - perhaps the most important in its entire history - was carried 
through without anyone noticing. The precedent set, and hallowed, the 
way was open to further progress. The use of the jury in such cases was 
seen to be such a neat, equitable and popular instrument that it was 
soon applied to other types of case. In 1179 it was substituted for the 
judicial duel in property suits, to the general satisfaction. This led to the 
rapid demise of the superstitious element in all cases. And the use of the 
jury in civil suits opened the way, where neither party could be quite 
confident of the verdict, to the neat device of out-of-court settlements. 
The parties composed, paid a fine to the Crown, drew up an agreement, 
kept one copy each and deposited a third with the Treasury as record. 
From the reign of John onwards this procedure was adapted to cases 
where there was no dispute, but simply a need for an absolutely sound 


title : the fine became a conveyancing fee for a right to deposit a copy 
in the official records, giving the Crown's perpetual sanction to posses- 
sion. The Crown was delighted by these developments, which brought it 
a reliable and growing income. The public welfare was enormously 
assisted. The law was set upon a new, radical and fruitful course, capable 
of infinite elaboration. Somewhere along the line a revolution had 
occurred, but before the point was noted the elements which composed 
it were already encrusted with the reverence of centuries. It was a very 
English operation. 

Yet Henry 11, the man who gave this powerful and skilfully judged 
impetus to the development of a just and effective legal system in this 
country, has a slight and insecure position in the English pantheon. The 
historians of law regard him with profound respect - in the case of 
Maitland with real affection - but to most Englishmen he is simply a 
rash and intemperate monarch whose inconsiderate words led to the 
brutal murder of England's greatest medieval saint. For this the monas- 
tic chroniclers and the hagiographers of Becket are chiefly to blame; and 
even a shrewd and original writer like Gerald the Welshman presents a 
hostile portrait of the King, for Gerald had a personal grudge: Henry's 
refusal to make him bishop of St David's. The image of the King as a 
man born to greatness and ruined by unbridled passion, the tyrannical 
head of a bawling, screaming family of incompatibles, is almost wholly 
false. In fact Henry was a man peculiarly well suited to rule medieval 
England. The English expected their King to be a chief executive in 
every sense of the word, to be a man of gravitas and dignity, learned in 
the customs of the country, scrupulous in observing their spirit, who 
listened to and noted the views of the magnates, was attuned to popular 
opinion, but at the same time willing to accept full responsibility for the 
initiation and execution of policy. He had to be kingly - he had to look 
and behave regally - but he had also to possess a dedication to the 
minutiae of official business rarely found even in the most industrious 
civil servant. 

The English in fact expected too much, and they very rarely got com- 
plete satisfaction. But Henry 11 must have come close to their ideal. He 
was a very professional king. He took a deep interest in the proceedings 
of the Exchequer, and may have presided over its sessions: 'Where the 
King^s treasure lies/ quoted the Dialogue, 'there lies his heart also.' 
He ran the finances not only of England but of his wide French terri- 
tories in a highly capable manner. Estimates of the surplus he left at his 
death range from 60,000 (over a year-and-a-half 's State income) to the 
enormous sum of 600,000, and this was achieved not by abuse but by 
careful and efficient management. He was the last king for 300 years to 


leave the state in a creditor position. He was not just a legal innovator 
but an assiduous and greatly respected judge. A large portion of his time 
was absorbed in presiding over court cases, some of which lasted from 
eight in the morning to nightfall and beyond; all really important cases 
the King handled personally - this was sometimes a cause of delay; and 
there is no doubt that litigants were anxious to get their cases settled 
before Henry, not simply because his verdicts carried the highest 
authority but because they were reached in a convincing and impressive 
manner. Wherever he went, and he travelled during his reign to prac- 
tically every corner of the kingdom, he was besieged by immense crowds 
of people : his face was familiar to a very large proportion of his subjects. 
Henry was shy and diffident ; but he forced himself to move among the 
crowds, and never lost his composure when they pulled him about. He 
had an impressive capacity to remember faces and names; once he 
looked hard at a man's features, he never forgot them. He was an 
accomplished linguist. A talk with the King was a memorable experi- 
ence, for he quickly seized on the heart of the matter, and had a gift for 
the lapidary phrase. Some faint echoes of the great political debates in 
which he participated reach us from the documents, revealing a formid- 
able marshal of arguments. A financier, a judge, an administrator, a 
public relations expert, an articulate politician and diplomat : all these 
things Henry was expected to be, and was; but hardest of all, he had 
also to be, at frequent intervals, a professional soldier. There is some- 
thing pathetic in the spectacle of Henry, at the end of an arduous life, in 
his late fifties, buckling on his armour and preparing to take part 
personally in energetic and ferocious hand-to-hand combat. 

But these duties could not be avoided. A professional medieval king 
had to be not only omni-competent but ubiquitous. His personal pre- 
sence on the battlefield was mandatory. His active supervision of all 
aspects of government was essential if the machine was to function at 
all. Any attempt to innovate or reform required intense and relentless 
exertions on his part. Henry had some good servants; but no official 
could be trusted beyond a limited point. The ablest ones were often the 
most corrupt and suspect. Any delegation of authority was a risk. The 
King travelled incessantly on business: his consumption of horses was 
enormous. On one occasion he covered 140 miles in two days of riding; 
50-80 miles a day was not unusual for him. Speed of movement was the 
key to successful kingship; so, also, was secrecy. Some of Henry's most 
important movements escaped the knowledge even of the best-informed 
chroniclers, and are revealed only by his charters and pipe-rolls. The 
King of France marvelled at Henry's celerity, and thought he must 
travel by some supernatural means. 



Such a life was ultimately intolerable. Henry's only relaxation was 
hunting. He never took a holiday, and can rarely have passed a night 
without worry. He had great nervous energy: his courtiers resented the 
fact that he never sat down except to eat and sleep. But the strain evi- 
dently told. Henry's frantic attempts to diet sprang from the ominous 
knowledge that a King who could not ride a horse long distances, at 
great average speed, would rapidly lose control of events, and might in 
the end forfeit his crown and his life: an inactive monarch was always 
at personal risk. In many ways this was a brutal and merciless society 
where the punishment for political failure was death. The last months of 
Henry's life were clouded by the despair engendered by the physical and 
nervous exhaustion of decades. It was the fate of all the great medieval 
English kings who did not die young. 

Henry was motivated only in a superficial degree by personal ambi- 
tion. What made him a great and characteristic English statesman was 
a passionate regard for public order; and it was to this that the English 
people responded. No race on earth has such a consistent and rooted 
hatred of unauthorised violence. Extremely violent by nature and 
instinct, their political capacity for self-knowledge has always placed 
the highest premium on the control and subjugation of these terrible 
forces within them. From Anglo-Saxon times to the present, English 
history is the long record of the struggle for self-mastery, the remorse- 
less, often unsuccessful, attempt to release themselves from the drug of 
violence. It has been, on the whole, a remarkably successful struggle ; but 
for this drug there is no such thing as a wholly complete cure, and con- 
stant vigilance will be needed so long as the English race lasts. At any 
rate, Henry n was unusually well attuned to this English preoccupation. 
He had violent instincts himself; equally, he was a passionate self- 
disciplinarian. His love of order was an intellectual concept which he 
ruthlessly superimposed on his own chaotic nature. His kingdom was the 
macrocosm of himself. How could some degree of respect for the law - 
some alternative to habitual violence - be imposed upon it ? This was the 
salient object of his public life. 

The volume of violent, serious crime in twelfth-century England was 
enormous. When court records begin to appear, as they did shortly 
after Henry died, they present a picture of viciousness which would 
appal even the most pessimistic American police commissioner today. 
The justices who visited Lincoln in 1202, for instance, found 114 cases of 
homicide, 89 of robbery, usually with violence, 65 of wounding, 49 of 
rape, and a great many others. Moreover, many violent crimes never 
came before the court, for want of evidence or unwillingness to lay 
charges. Against this tide of perpetual lawlessness, Henry struggled with 



only partial success.* But to some extent he was able to involve the 
more public-spirited elements of society in the process of law-enforce- 
ment. Having clarified both civil and criminal law, he enlisted ordinary 
freemen (as jurors) and local gentry (as administrators of justice) in the 
business of getting it observed; his more responsible barons could always 
find regular and well-paid employment as judges. He invested the royal 
courts with a salutary measure of terror and majesty, and drew to them 
a growing volume of business from the ramshackle private courts of the 
baronial honours. It was very limited and piecemeal progress, but pro- 
gress all the same; under Henry a murderer stood a growing chance of 
apprehension, and a judge could rarely be defied with impunity. The 
State thus moved perceptibly closer to the people, sometimes in the 
most ominous and uncomfortable manner. Clause 6 of the Assize of 
Northampton (1176) obliged everyone, even villeins, to take a personal 
oath of allegiance to the monarch, under pain of arrest ; Clause 2 went 
even further: 

Let no one either in a borough or a village entertain in his house for more 
than one night any stranger for whom he is unwilling to be responsible, unless 
there be a reasonable excuse for this hospitality, which the host of the house 
shall show to his neighbours. And when the guest shall depart, let him leave 
in the presence of the neighbours, and by day. 

Yet however much such measures might be resented by some, it is clear 
that Henry's campaign for law and order met with the enthusiastic 
approval of the overwhelming majority of the English people of all 
classes. It responded not only to a national need, but to a popular 

There was, however, one element in society which not only refused to 
cooperate but actively resisted the Crown. This was the Church, or 
rather an influential section of it. Here we come to a significant water- 
shed in English history, an episode which tells us a good deal about 
England and the English. The Church of England, though an importa- 
tion from Rome, had played a very important state function in Anglo- 

* William I had a conscientious objection to capital punishment and substituted muti- 
lation. But hanging was restored by Henry i ; women were burnt. At a single court session 
in Leicestershire, his judge Ralph Basset had 44 thieves hanged. Under Henry n hanging 
alternated with mutilation; thus in 1166 at the London-Middlesex assizes, 14 men were 
hanged and 14 mutilated. Henry n*s legal reforms made it more difficult for the authori- 
ties to secure a conviction, but on the other hand made it far more likely that criminals 
would be brought to trial. Men caught in the act were often executed without trial ; as 
late as 1603, James i, travelling south to London for his coronation, had a red-handed 
thief hanged on the spot. 



Saxon times. From its earliest existence, it had been closely associated 
with the spread of civilisation, the concept of law, especially of written 
law, the development of a fair system of taxation, defence in war, 
administration in peace, above all with the proper functioning of a 
powerful central monarchy. Next to the Crown itself, it had played a 
bigger role than any other element in the evolution towards a stable, 
unified civil society. With scarcely an exception, bishops and kings had 
worked together in constructive harmony. Indeed, it was impossible to 
separate the functions of Church and State. Now this is a very English 
concept : the idea that the spiritual authorities should underwrite the 
operations of civil government. It is also a brilliant formula for domestic 
tranquillity. No English writer of the Dark Ages expressed it in words ; it 
was taken for granted, an obvious and pragmatic contribution to the 
problem of maintaining order. 

But the Church of England was also linked to an international organi- 
sation, based on Rome. This link, as a channel for ideas and culture, was 
welcome to the English, in the same way that the English Channel 
itself served to transmit the controlled importation of Continental goods 
and notions. But the stress is on 'control'. It was never tolerable that 
the international links of the Church should be used to transmit orders 
which in any way limited the sovereignty of the English people. Ulti- 
mately the direction of the Church of England had to lie in English 
hands : the links had either to be controlled from this side of the Channel, 
or snapped. The history of England's relations with Rome over five 
centuries is a series of variations on this unwavering theme. 

The late eleventh century introduced a period of papal expansion. 
Under the guise of spiritual reform, Pope Gregory VH (Hildebrand) 
elaborated a programme of political action which would have absorbed 
the whole of western Christendom into a centralised theocracy under the 
sole and absolute direction of the Pope. He set down his aims in a 
series of propositions which he dictated to a secretary and which was 
placed in his letter-book. The world was Christ's kingdom: the Pope his 
vicar, exercising all authority whatsoever, with the Church as his 
spiritual and the State his secular arm: bishops and kings alike would 
be mere functionaries of Rome, with the priest-emperor transmitting 
to them the commands of the Deity. Not until the communist manifesto 
of 1848 did the governments of the world face such an audacious pro- 
gramme of international subversion. It was a threat to the established 
order of all countries. But it was in England that it was most bitterly 
resented and most fiercely resisted. Here, for the first time, England was 
to lead the struggle against a deliberate attempt to set up a European 



The opening phase of the papal plan was to elevate its international 
agents, the priesthood, into a separate and privileged class, exempt from 
the normal processes of local administration, and above all of justice. 
The Church sought, in the first instance, to set up separate courts to 
try cases solely concerned with spiritual matters; then to use these 
courts as the exclusive instrument for clergy accused of secular offences; 
finally to embrace within the spiritual ambit an ever- widening variety 
of secular crimes and disputes. Ultimately, then, the Church would 
take over the judicial function of the State, and from thence it was 
only a small step to take over administration and everything else. 

Such a plan might be carried out in Tibet; it was inconceivable that 
it should succeed in Europe, above all in England. The only questions 
were : could a compromise be reached, and if so what form would it take ? 
The English are gifted at finding such pragmatic solutions, in which 
theory is not pressed too hard on either side. It says a lot for the English 
genius that the break with Rome was delayed so long. William I set the 
pattern, with a combination of firmness on essentials and gracious 
gestures (chiefly money) to keep the Pope happy. Despite Anselm and 
his like, there is plenty of evidence that by the mid-twelfth century 
arrangements satisfactory to both sides could usually be reached on most 
points in dispute, such as the selection of bishops and the overlapping of 
jurisdictions. In most cases the State got its way, as was inevitable: for 
it was the State which had the responsibility of actually running the 
country. Then came Thomas Becket : and his story illustrates what can 
happen when a powerful and violent personality tries to overthrow a 
characteristically English way of doing things. 

Henry, as we have seen, was preoccupied with the problem of violence, 
and especially violent crime. One very important aspect of this was the 
rising volume of crimes committed by clergymen. There were perhaps 
100,000 people in the country who could make some claim to possess 
clerical orders. Only a minority possessed one of the 9,000 or so available 
benefices, or could rely for their support on a religious house. Some lived 
by crime; a large number were attracted to felony from time to time in 
order to live. The King's mother, the old Empress, could recite from 
memory a long list of outrageous clerical offences. Some were of national 
notoriety; and what most angered the public of all classes was the use of 
the clerical courts to enable these men to escape punishment. There was, 
for instance, the case of the Archdeacon of York, who was alleged, in 
1154, to have murdered his archbishop by slipping poison into his mass- 
chalice. The archdeacon may have been innocent; what angered all 
laymen, from the King down, was that he was never brought to trial in a 
royal court. There was a more recent case of a canon of Bedford, charged 



with the murder of a knight, who had then insulted the sheriff and 
pleaded benefit of clergy. (Becket eventually had this man scourged for 
contempt of court, but he never stood trial on the capital charge.) 

It was this growing problem, almost certainly, which led Henry to 
appoint Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket was a Londoner, the 
son of middle-class Norman parents. He had received a good education, 
had travelled, and had picked up some of the new papal ideas in the 
household of old Archbishop Theobald. But he was a worldly man, a 
pluralist ; the King had found him an energetic and single-minded public 
servant, and had made him Chancellor. He had fought alongside the 
King and acted as his ambassador in Paris. He was fond of money, still 
more of spending money; but always willing to fight the King's battles 
against the Church. Henry did not want a war with the Pope-; on the 
contrary, he wanted a workable compromise, of the type Lanfranc had 
achieved. He thought that this could be brought about if Becket com- 
bined the role of Chancellor with metropolitan. This was why he 
appointed him, over the claims of several more qualified churchmen. 

Now to an exceptionally busy and serious-minded head of govern- 
ment, like Henry, Becket's behaviour after his installation must have 
seemed criminally irresponsible. Not only did he immediately resign as 
Chancellor, but he set himself to sabotage the royal efforts at law- 
enforcement on precisely the issue of criminous clerks which Henry, as 
he knew, was determined to resolve. Henry seems to have completely 
misread Becket's character: perhaps he knew him much less well than 
popular tradition supposes. Becket was the dangerous type : a man of 
concentrated energy, with second-class brains and no sense of propor- 
tion. It was beyond his nature to balance the claims of Church and State 
in one judicious personality. Becket patronised actors; in a sense he was 
one. He could only play one role at a time, but into that he threw every- 
thing he possessed. He had acted the Chancellor; now he acted the arch- 
bishop ; when that role palled he would act the martyr. 

Becket's provocative attitude led the King into the tactical error of 
setting down his definition of Church-State relations in writing - the 
Constitutions of Clarendon. This was bound to lead to a formal debate 
with the Pope, and indeed with the English hierarchy, who in other 
respects were behind the King and willing to concede that he had tradi- 
tibn and custom on his side. It is a useful lesson of English history that, 
if you have the advantage of tradition, it is a mistake to prejudice it by 
putting it in words. But Henry was doubtless angered by Becket's flat 
refusal to compromise. The Archbishop took no steps to curtail crime 
among the clergy by improving the methods of selection, by a judicious 
programme of unfrockings, by an increase of severity in clerical courts. 



There is no evidence that he took any interest in the moral aspects of the 
problem ; or indeed, that he had the slightest concern for his primary 
duties as archbishop - the pastoral care of two-thirds of the English 
people. He did not in fact perform any strictly clerical duties, beyond 
saying mass. He paid no attention to purely moral or religious questions ; 
whether he was a Christian in any meaningful sense is open to doubt. 
What mattered to him was power, authority, jurisdiction and the privi- 
lege of his caste. It is not surprising that Henry, who had a very definite 
layman's sense of right and wrong, found Becket's spiritual pretensions 

The course of this famous dispute - Becket's condemnation by 
Henry's court at Northampton, his flight and long exile, his apparent 
reconciliation with the King, his defiant return and his murder - is one of 
the best-documented episodes in the whole of medieval history; n con- 
temporary biographies of Becket survive, together with over 700 letters 
from the interested parties, and there is a mass of other material. What 
strikes the modern reader is the extraordinary violence of Becket's 
attitudes, and his gradual loss of balance. When Becket was condemned 
at Northampton, he turned on two members of the King's court, Henry's 
illegitimate half-brother Hamelin and Ranulf de Broc, and shouted: 
'Bastard lout ! If I were not a priest, my right hand would give you the 
lie. As for you [to de Broc] one of your family has been hanged already.' 
Men were killed for less than this in the twelfth century. The correspon- 
dence on all sides is pretty vituperative; but Becket's side of it is dis- 
tinguished by the ripeness and variety of his abusive language. The 
English aristocracy, who were absolutely united behind Henry, had 
some grounds for their view that Becket was a vulgar and mannerless 
upstart; their hatred of him was coloured by a strong sense of class 
solidarity. Even Becket's natural supporters found him an embarrass- 
ment. No pope was more anxious to enforce clerical claims than that 
accomplished litigant Alexander in ; but he had got himself involved in a 
disputed papal election - the fatal weakness of the medieval papacy - 
and needed Henry's support against the Anti-Pope. Lesser papalists 
were dismayed by Becket's tactical blunders and by his growing bitter- 
ness and intransigence. The senior English clergy generally sided with 
the King. The wisest of them, Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, a man 
distinguished for his learning and pastoral work, took the view that 
Church and State had to live together in harmony, thus expressing 
(perhaps unconsciously) the broad-minded Anglicanism of Bede. As he 
said to Becket : 'If the King were to wield the temporal sword with the 
audacity with which you wield the spiritual one, how can we ever have 
peace ?' The trouble with Becket, he added, 'is that he has always been 


an ass, and always will be/ The Empress Matilda, speaking for the older 
generation of the English establishment, gave some sensible advice : the 
Constitutions should never have been written down. All documents and 
oaths should be withdrawn on both sides. After that, royal justices 
should be told to be careful, and bishops to be reasonable. Henry himself 
seems to have been willing, at all stages, to accept any workable com- 
promise which allowed him to get on with his job of running the king- 
dom: the expenditure of time and energy on the controversy was 
prodigious, and he (unlike Becket) had plenty of other things to do. 

But Becket was an extremist and a doctrinaire; he did not want a 
compromise but a royal humiliation, of the sort Gregory vii had inflicted 
on the Emperor at Canossa. Towards the end, he seems to have lost 
sight of the original issues in dispute, and was searching for new griev- 
ances. Before he set foot again in England, on i December 1170, he found 
one. Earlier that year the King had had his eldest son crowned; Becket 
being unavailable, the Archbishop of York had officiated, assisted by 
six other prelates. No doubt Canterbury usually had the right to crown a 
king; on the other hand, this kind of rivalry between the two provincials 
was ecclesiasticism at its most disreputable and vulgar, something 
which, if tolerated at all, was best left to semi-literate monks from the 
two chapters, who could (and in 1176 actually did) beat each other with 
clubs in support of their claims. But Becket was by now so obsessed with 
his wrongs that he seized on this trivial point to excommunicate the off- 
ending bishops. It was their natural complaints which exasperated Henry 
beyond endurance, and led to the tragedy. 

It is evidence of Becket's state of mind that, in his sermon on Christ- 
mas Day, a few days before the murder, preached to the text 'Peace be 
to men of goodwill 1 , he dwelt angrily on the wickedness of the King's 
men who, he said, had cut off the tail of a horse belonging to one of his 
servants. He excommunicated the culprits there and then. Thus the 
momentous conflict between Church and State came down, in the end, 
to the simple matter of a horse's tail. The archbishop was in danger of 
dissolving his cause in ridicule. Perhaps he realised that he was now at 
the end of the road, and that the time had come to abandon the tattered 
role of embattled cleric and embrace the new one of martyr. At what 
point does the quest for martyrdom become a matter of suicide? To get 
himself killed was now the only way in which Becket could damage the 
King. There is no evidence that the four men who travelled from Henry's 
court to question Becket were bent on murder. They were not riffraff, 
but senior barons, substantial landowners; one had been a royal justice. 
They came to Becket, in the first instance, unarmed, intending remon- 
strance, perhaps threats; their object may have been to take him into 



custody, for trial, for Becket had undoubtedly broken the law. It was the 
angry argument which then developed which led the King's men to rush 
off for their armour, and made killing inevitable. Becket's behaviour 
brought a sad protest from his ablest adviser - the only one who was not 
a sycophantic monk - the famous writer and canonist John of Salisbury. 
Why, he asked, did Becket always refuse to take advice? Why bandy 
furious words with these wicked men, and exasperate them still further ? 
Why had Becket followed them to the door shouting at them? Becket's 
reply was that he had done with taking advice. Even now, he could have 
sought refuge. His subsequent actions that evening, of which we have 
various minute-by-minute accounts from eyewitnesses, make it plain he 
deliberately chose to be assassinated.* 

The murder threw Henry into a state of nervous prostration; and it is 
not hard to see why. He was a man of law, a sworn enemy of violence, 
whose whole life and policy were devoted to the establishment of order 
and the due processes of the courts. This atrocious crime, for which he 
must bear some responsibility, was the negation, the denial, of all his 
principles. It was a disaster for the English Crown, a humiliation for the 
English people ; and it was also a personal tragedy for himself. 

But when Henry recovered his composure, he in fact acted with 
remarkably sagacity. He drew heavily on the deep wells of English 
hypocrisy, on the English capacity to muddy hostile waters and confuse 
inconvenient issues. First he suddenly found it necessary to go cam- 
paigning in Ireland (then and for many centuries to come a refuge for 
English grandees in temporary disgrace) until the immediate storm 
blew over. On his return he did humble penance. Substantial sums of 
English taxpayers' money were transferred to eager palms in the 
Lateran. By now the first miracles at Canterbury had taken place; and, 
when all was said and done, they were English miracles. A murdered 
archbishop was a threat to the English Crown ; an honoured martyr could 
be made into an English national asset. The English establishment 
moved into action. Becket got his martyr's accolade with remarkable 
speed. Alexander canonised him only two years afterwards: Rome is 
always grateful to clergymen who make life in England difficult. But he 
misjudged the resourcefulness of the English character. With shameless 
effrontery, the Crown took over the new saint. Henry was heard to 
mutter appeals for St Thomas's assistance in moments of crisis. His 
three daughters, comfortably married to European sovereigns, enthusias- 
tically spread the new English cult throughout Europe. His justiciar, 
Becket's mortal enemy, built a chapel in his honour, without abating 

* For a recent, and far more charitable, view of Becket's conduct, see David Knowles: 
Thomas Becket (London 1970). 



by one jot his campaign against clerical privilege. Canterbury became an 
international shrine to rival the much-envied tomb of St James in 
Compostella, a financial godsend for centuries to the citizens of the 
town, monks and laymen alike, and a rich source of foreign exchange for 
the English economy. 

As for the causes for which Becket died, the Crown carried on much 
as before. The Clarendon Constitutions were, in practice, enforced. Only 
on the matter of criminous clerks was the State, for some time at least, 
chary of pushing its claims. Becket died so that a few clerical murderers 
might go unpunished. Or did they ? There is evidence that, from time to 
time, they met rough justice, not in the King's court, or in the Church's, 
or in any court at all: they were simply (so clerical spokesmen com- 
plained) 'hanged privily at night or in the luncheon hour*. The Becket 
affair changed English history in only one respect: it gave birth to 
English anti-clericalism, a smouldering national force which was to 
grow in depth and volume until it found expression in the Reformation. 
There was more than gruesome symbolism in Henry vm's treatment of 
Becket. In 1536 he instructed his attorney-general to institute quo 
warranto proceedings against St Thomas. The corpse was assigned 
counsel at public expense, but found guilty of 'contumacy, treason and 
rebellion'. The bones were scattered and offerings made at the shrine 
confiscated by the Crown. It was declared illegal to call Becket a saint, 
and it was further ordered 'that all images and pictures of him should 
be destroyed, the festivals in his honour should be abolished, and his 
name and remembrance erased out of all books, under pain of His 
Majesty's indignation, and imprisonment at His Grace's pleasure'.* 

English anti-clericalism was, of course, merely one important branch 
of English xenophobia. Hostility to foreigners is one of the most deep- 
rooted and enduring characteristics of the English; like the national 
instinct for violence, it is a genuine popular force, held in check (if at all) 
only by the most resolute discipline imposed, against the public will, by 
authoritarian central government acting out of enlightened self-interest. 
Racialism has always flourished in England when government has been 
weak, and the sophisticated governing minority have lacked the will to re- 
sist public clamour. The claim, sometimes advanced today, that England 

* There is no authentic account of this 'trial*, and it may be an invention by sixteenth- 
century Catholic propagandists. There is also a tale, impossible now to prove or disprove, 
that Henry vm's body met a similar fate: his daughter Mary, it is alleged, had it resur- 
rected and burnt as a heretic. Certainly, Henry's tomb was never finished; the screen 
was taken down and the ornaments sold by Parliament in 1646; the sarcophagus was 
eventually used for the body of Nelson, and is now in the crypt of St Paul's. 



has an internationalist outlook, and a talent for promoting inter-racial 
harmony, is spurious and lacks historical justification, at any rate so 
far as the great mass of the English are concerned. Tolerance has only 
been imposed in the teeth of their resistance. The evidence on this score 
is overwhelming; the only difficulty is to determine precisely where 
English racialism begins. The area of racial respectability, centred on 
London, has often appeared to extend no further than the lowland zone, 
bounded by Severn and Trent, and not invariably to all of this.* 
Henry vm, admonishing the men of Lincolnshire who had participated 
in the rebellious Pilgrimage of Grace, told them that they hailed 'from 
one of the most brute and beastly shires of the whole realm'. f English 
governments could usually cope with insurrections from outside the 
zone, which lacked a pure English centre of gravity; but a rebellion in 
the south-east was always a serious matter, and usually fatal. It was the 
south-east which determined the course of the Reformation, the Civil 
War, the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian settlement. Not until 
the nineteenth century, with its dramatic shifts in population and 
economic resources, was the north-west able to assert decisive political 
influence : the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was its first regional vic- 
tory, and in a sense its last, for the balance has since swung back to the 
south-east : no English government has been formed in recent decades 
without majority support in this area. 

But the real racial frontiers were fixed in the Welsh and Scottish 
marches. Beyond these limits even Roman military power had encoun- 
tered difficulties which ultimately proved too expensive to resolve. It is 
true that the Romans established a form of military occupation in 
Wales. But the normal processes of economic colonisation could not 
operate there; the Welsh economy remained pastoral; the people could 
not be effectively disarmed, indeed in the closing stages of Roman rule 
they were recruited as auxiliaries; their tribal organisation, laws, lan- 
guage and customs remained intact ; only Christianity made any impact. 
In Scotland even the Roman military presence was fugitive and ineffec- 
tual, and the Roman economy made no progress north of the Tyne- 
Tees, or indeed for many miles to the south of it. This pattern was 
repeated during the Germanic settlements, which made no substantial 
penetration beyond the line now known as Offa's Dyke, and the Old 
Roman Wall. The racial and cultural frontiers began to solidify in the 

* Hence the ancient phrase 'the Home Counties' (i.e. the non-foreign counties) ; these 
are the counties bordering on London, plus Hertfordshire and Sussex. The people of 
these areas spoke the East Mercian dialect which became the basis of modern English. 

f Henry vm never felt safe in the north, and went there only with the greatest reluc- 
tance, and under heavy escort. Elizabeth, though on constant progress, never went north 
of the Trent or west of the Severn ; she was a Home Counties queen. 



eighth century and have never changed by more than a few score miles. 
The Normans, as the residual legatee of the Old English State, became 
the dominant landowning element only within the areas of effective 
English occupation. Thus the relationship between England and its 
Celtic neighbours began to assume its modern form from the beginnings 
of the twelfth century. 

This relationship was, and remains today, essentially ambivalent. The 
English could never establish a cultural ascendancy in Wales or Scot- 
land, or destroy in their peoples a sense of separate nationhood based on 
race, even though the English language became predominant and even- 
tually triumphant. On the other hand, England was inevitably the para- 
mount power, in a military and political sense, in the British Isles. To 
what extent should this preponderance based on greater resources of 
wealth and manpower be expressed in direct political sovereignty? This 
question has never been finally answered; perhaps there is no answer 
which all the parties can find fully acceptable. The claims of the Old 
English kingdom, as expressed for instance in Edgar's coronation, were 
theoretically limitless ; and they were inherited by the Anglo-Norman 
monarchy. But to enforce them was a different matter: here the pattern 
of development is ragged and contradictory. Wales was just close enough 
to the English centre of gravity to permit conquest ; Scotland just too 
far away, and the modern relationship was established by diplomacy 
and agreement rather than force. But all this took time : throughout the 
Middle Ages the English confronted their Celtic neighbours in an atmo- 
sphere of mutual and often violent hostility. Moreover, racial fears were 
intensified by geographical factors. Both the Welsh and the Scots 
quickly learned to synchronise resistance to the English with the hostile 
efforts of England's Continental enemies, above all the French mon- 
archy. The domestic divisions of the British Isles became an integral 
part of the struggle for supremacy in north-west Europe. Thus the 
racial antagonism, based on an arrogant sense of cultural superiority, 
which the English felt for the Celts, was sharpened by the fear that 
England was always the potential victim of a conspiracy of encircle- 

The Welsh were the earliest victims of this terror-psychology. It is 
interesting that the Welsh initially saw the Normans as their natural 
allies, in more than just a military sense, against the hated English. 
Gerald the Welshman, writing in the late twelfth century, described the 
English as a people born to slavery: the noble Normans, and the free- 
born, fearless Welshmen, were the racial types to be admired. But a 
hundred years later Norman and English interests and stock had 
coalesced and united in a common anti- Welsh racialism; Edward I 



determined on a final solution to the problem of the Welsh frontier by 
an outright and permanent military occupation, underwritten by a 
colossal infrastructure of castles, roads, ports, and towns colonised by 
Englishmen ; and this political aim was reinforced by a racial ideology. 
The Church of Rome had always favoured the outright English conquest 
of the Celtic fringe - a policy inaugurated in the seventh century by the 
Synod of Whitby as the only means whereby the Celtic Churches could 
be brought within its unitary system of discipline and administration. 
Thus the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pecham, was instructed to be the 
fugleman of Edward's armies; all Welsh who resisted were automatic- 
ally excommunicated; and one of the archbishop's clerks wrote a racist 
diatribe which became the moral manifesto of conquest. The Welsh 
were Trojan debris', swept into the wooded savagery of Cambria under 
the guidance of the Devil. Their sexual promiscuity was notorious; they 
spent their lives in theft and rapine, or sloth; they were so depraved 
that only a few had learned to till the soil. Only the mild forbearance of 
the English kings had prevented the English from long ago blotting out 
the existence and memory of this 'detestable people'. Edward's military 
architect, James of Savoy, put the matter more prosaically: so long 
as war with Scotland and France was possible, Wales would always 
constitute a threat to the English, for, he said, 'Welshmen are Welsh- 
men'. More than a century later, continued Welsh resistance to the 
English Crown led to petitions to parliament for the enactment of 
racial legislation: privileges enjoyed by Welshmen residing in England 
should be withdrawn, and Welsh purchase of land in England for- 
bidden; Welsh tenants should be automatically obliged to give securi- 
ties of good behaviour, and Englishmen in Wales should be given special 
legal protection against the malice of Welsh juries. In 1403 one of 
Henry iv's officers told him that 'the whole of the Welsh nation in these 
parts are concerned in the rebellion', and he pleaded with the King 'to 
ordain a final destruction of all the false nation aforesaid'. No such 
extermination took place; it was beyond the capacity, and perhaps the 
desire, of the English; it proved impossible to carry out even a general 
policy of colonisation ; but the Welsh ruling class and aristocracy were 
largely destroyed, and Wales wholly absorbed in the English system of 
administration, a process completed by Henry vm. 

The English undoubtedly wished to impose the same fate on Scotland. 
At all times they hated their northern neighbours even more than they 
hated the Welsh, because they feared them more, because a Scottish- 
French alliance was a more dangerous combination, and because 
Scottish treachery (as they saw it) was more expensive and difficult to 
punish. It was always much easier for English governments to recruit 



English armies against Scotland than against France, though the 
chances of profit were far smaller. To fight the Scots was often a pleasure 
as well as a duty. The English attitude was summed up by Henry vin's 
envoy in Scotland, Ralph Sadler, who complained to his master : 'Under 
the sun lives not more beastly and unreasonable people than here be of 
all degrees.'* The Scots were saved by geography, by timely resistance, 
perhaps most of all by Elizabeth I, the first modern-minded English 
monarch, whose Scottish treaty of 1560 prepared the way for a political 
solution based on consent. 

By contrast, the relationship of the English with the Irish is a saga of 
unrelieved tragedy, from the mid-twelfth century to the present day. 
Any theory that the English have a natural capacity for governing 
other races cannot survive even the most cursory examination of Anglo- 
Irish history: English policy-makers committed every conceivable error 
from the first moment of contact, then sought to retrieve their blunders 
by savagery. The chief trouble, ironically, was that Ireland never 
sufficiently occupied the centre of England's political consciousness. It 
was a marginal threat, a marginal problem, and a marginal asset. The 
English have never been able to let the Irish wholly alone; on the other 
hand they have never given Ireland a high priority in their national 
schemes. Until the great labouring Irish migration of the nineteenth 
century, the mass of the English had had no direct contact with the 
Irish; racialism, on this side of the Irish Sea, was a matter of hearsay, 
distant rumours of an unsatisfactory people. Contact between the races 
devolved upon a small group of Anglo-Norman settlers, invested by the 
English State with plenary powers of conquest, but lacking the means 
and numbers to achieve it. They were beyond the range of effective 
supervision from London. They were active and aggressive enough to 
arouse Irish antagonism and provoke periodic resistance ; but physically 
incapable of suppressing it without help from England. Thus Anglo- 
Irish relations became a succession of episodes, following a dreary and 
repetitive cycle of misrule, rebellion, suppression, and then malignant 
neglect, leading again to misrule and rebellion. The English settler class 
could not complete the conquest; neither would they adopt a thorough- 
going policy of assimilation : they oscillated uneasily between the two. 
Irish society became stratified on a racial basis : the kind of relationship 
which existed between English and Normans immediately after 1066 
was, in Ireland, frozen into permanent antagonism. English policy in 

* On the other hand, ambitious Scots had been travelling south to make careers in 
England since at least the thirteenth century. Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and claimant 
to the Scottish throne, served Henry in as a judge for nearly 20 years, ending up as chief 
justice of the King's Bench. A King of Scotland served in Edward m's army, and was 
paid ^2 i os a day. Welshmen, too, served in English armies, as archers. 



Ireland, right from the start, failed to create a viable state: it was never 
more than an occupation, and a precarious and partial one. Its political 
motivation was fear, its instruments invariably force. The English 
could not conquer Ireland; but they would not relinquish it. They could 
not administer it ; they could only, from time to time, subdue it. To 
complete the tragedy, the English in England, viewing Ireland from 
afar, conscious indeed of its existence only when misery erupted into 
violence (which they then felt in duty bound to put down), came to 
regard the Irish as wholly unreasonable people, who could not be fitted 
into any known scheme of government, a society contra naturam. The 
blame for English failure was complacently shifted on to the heads of 
the victims, and the English closed their eyes to the true nature of the 
Irish problem. Their eyes are still closed: though Ireland can still 
attract English attention by violence, it cannot command an under- 
standing. Booksellers and publishers agree that it is not easy to sell 
serious books on Ireland to the English public ; and not one Englishman 
in a hundred has ever heard of the Statutes of Kilkenny. 

Yet these English laws, passed in 1366 and retained on the statute 
book until well into the seventeenth century, were the keystone of a 
policy which turned Ireland into the South Africa of the Middle Ages. 
They were wholly racist in inspiration, and their object was a crude form 
of apartheid. The attempt to govern the whole of Ireland was aban- 
doned. The English colony was to be limited to the 'obedient shires' 
which constituted the Pale. Those who lived beyond the Pale were offici- 
ally designated as 'Irish enemies'. As early as 1285 complaints had 
been made that Irishmen should never be appointed to bishoprics, 'as 
they always preach against the King'. Now the Irish - the custodians of 
an ancient church, which flourished when the English were still pagans - 
were to be excluded by law from all ecclesiastical office. The English 
were not to enter into negotiations with the Irish ; or to marry them or 
sell them horses or armour. The English settlers were to be protected 
from 'degeneracy* by a variety of prohibitions. They must not employ 
Irish minstrels, poets or story-tellers; they must use English sermons, 
the English language and English customs. They were forbidden Irish 
sports, such as hurling and quoits, and commanded to learn the use of 
the bow 'and other gentle games'. 

Thus religion had very little to do with the origins of the Anglo- 
Irish problem ; or, rather, it did so only in a sense which later history 
made richly ironic. The original English invasion of Ireland, in the 
11703, was carried out at papal request, and with papal authority, by the 
bull Laudabiliter (1155). It is true that the bull may be spurious; 
true also that its supposed author, Hadrian iv, was the only Englishman 



ever to sit on the throne of St Peter. But Hadrian was more a cosmo- 
politan clerical careerist than an English nationalist ; and in any event 
the real authority for the conquest was contained in letters written to 
Henry 11 by Pope Alexander HI, a resolute Hildebrandine pontiff, with 
no love for the English. The English were encouraged to brutalise the 
Irish in the name of papal supremacy. England's title-deeds to Ireland 
were inscribed not in London but in Rome. The popes had always 
hated the Irish Church since the Synod of Whitby, and even before 

By the time Richard n visited Ireland in the 13903, the racial mould 
had set. He classified its inhabitants into 'irrois savages, nos enemis; 
irrois rebelz; et Us Englois obseissantz* . By 'irrois rebelz* he meant 'de- 
generate' English, who had 'gone native'. English-born and Irish-born 
English settlers were forbidden by statute to shout racist expressions at 
each other: they were to stand together, in racial solidarity, against the 
Irish enemies'. Now from Richard H'S classification it is only a short 
step to Cromwell's more famous one: 'English protestants (loyalists) 
and Irish papists (rebels)'. And from Cromwell's it is an even shorter 
step to the Unionist-Nationalist division in present-day Ulster. Religion, 
indeed, is not the root of the problem in Ireland; it is merely the colour- 
ation of an underlying racist division which is much more ancient.* The 
identification of Irish nationalism with Roman Catholicism was largely 
accidental. It was the fanatical Catholic sovereign Queen Mary who 
began the systematic plantation of English settlers in the confiscated 
lands of Irish rebels. Hence, when England turned to Protestantism 
under Elizabeth, the older Anglo-Irish landed class clung to the Church 
of Rome more as a protest against the newer English plantations than for 
doctrinal reasons. Catholicism and the Pope became an expression of 
Irish nationalism, and the Papacy, which had given Ireland to England, 
now exhorted the Irish to resist. No doubt Celtic conservatism helped 
to stiffen Irish resistance to reform; but the main impulse in Ireland's 
religious choice was political and racial. If England had remained 
Catholic, and France had turned Protestant, there is little doubt that 
Ireland would have turned Protestant too. 

As a final irony, it is arguable that England might have accorded 

* Dean Swift, writing from Dublin to Alexander Pope, said he was 'grieved to find you 
make no distinction between the English gentry of this kingdom, and the savage old 
Irish (who are only the vulgar, and some gentlemen who live in the Irish parts of the 
kingdom)'. Edward Carson, the founder of modern Ulster (though himself a Dubliner), 
made no bones about his racialism. In 1933 he wrote : 'The Celts have done nothing in 
Ireland but create trouble and disorder. Irishmen who have turned out successful are 
not, in any case that I know, of true Celtic origin/ (H. Montgomery Hyde: Carson 
[London, IQ53]. P- 49* ) 



religious toleration to the Irish, while still clinging to her political 
sovereignty. Henri iv's Edict of Nantes in France had set an important, 
and at the time successful, precedent. Its adoption was discussed in 
ruling English circles. Bacon noted: 'A toleration of religion (for a time 
not definite) except it be in some principal towns and precincts, after the 
manner of some French edicts, seemeth to me to be a matter warrant- 
able by religion, and in policy of absolute necessity/ But such a policy 
broke down on the rock of racialism, particularly now that northern 
Ireland had become the theatre of Scottish Presbyterian settlement. 
Ireland thus became, and remains, the victim of a racial aggression, 
masquerading in the trappings of a religious controversy; and faith 
became the emblem of race, and thus of allegiance. 

The growing aggressiveness of the English towards their Celtic neigh- 
bours, reflecting a new consciousness of their nationhood and racial 
unity, also found expression in hostility towards alien elements within 
the English community. The ruling class of the early Anglo-Norman 
kingdom had a distinct cosmopolitan flavour: we hear of no complaints 
against Lanfranc and Anselm, both Italians, on the grounds of race. 
The Jews, too, came to England for the first time in the wake of the 
Conqueror, and formed substantial and flourishing communities in many 
of the chief towns. For seventy years or more they appear to have lived 
unmolested. But as the twelfth century progressed, the native popula- 
tion, including the largely French-speaking aristocracy, began to draw 
fierce distinctions between themselves and 'those not of the nation of the 
realm of England'. It has always been in the economic interest of 
the English State to protect foreigners and allow them to go about 
their business to our mutual profit; equally, it has always been the 
popular desire to persecute and if possible rob them. When the medi- 
eval State was strong, foreigners were safe; the moment the Crown 
relaxed its grip, their lives and property were at risk. Alien trading 
communities had always to be placed under the personal safeguard of 
the King. 

The Jews were a case in point. They were, in a legal sense, the pro- 
perty of the Crown, which systematically 'farmed' them. They alone, in 
theory at least, were allowed to lend money at interest (at rates usually 
around 50 per cent, but sometimes up to 66f). The King could tallage 
them at will, and at death their property reverted to the Crown, or 
could be possessed by the heirs only on payment of a heavy percentage 
fine. The Crown made it possible for the Jews to enforce the law against 
their debtors so that, in turn, it could take its cut. At Westminster 
special justices of the Jews and a separate exchequer were set up to 
administer the community. Their dealings were vast and played a 



crucial role in the money economy: they financed the development both 
of agriculture and the arts, and made possible the very rapid advance in 
English standards of life and culture which was such a marked feature of 
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Aaron of Lincoln, perhaps the most 
successful Jew in English history, operated in 25 counties; among his 
clients were the King of Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a 
score of bishops, abbots and earls, and innumerable lesser fry. He 
financed the building of Lincoln Cathedral, Peterborough and St Albans 
Abbeys, and at least nine Cistercian houses. When he died in 1185 the 
Crown set up a special exchequer, the Scaccarium Aaronis, to collect 
his debts, a process which took 20 years; it was probably the biggest 
financial windfall ever received by an English government. 

But rising English racial consciousness made it increasingly difficult 
for the Crown to guard its proteges. The Church, heavily in debt to the 
Jews, fed the racial flames by manufacturing tales of Jewish ritual 
murders: the first and most notorious, of the child 'St William of 
Norwich' in 1144, eagerly spread by monks whose splendid estates and 
edifices the Jews had financed, led to an ugly rash of anti-Semitic riots. 
It is significant that this occurred during the worst years of Stephen's 
reign, when central government was near breakdown. Henry H'S re- 
establishment of law and order allowed the Jewish communities to 
flourish once more - indeed reach the height of their prosperity; but 
soon after his death anti-Semitism again took to the streets. There were 
pogroms in London, Norwich, Lincoln and Stamford; and in York 150 
Jews, who had taken refuge in the royal castle, were massacred. The 
ability of the Crown to protect the Jews was a faithful index of its 
general authority: when John was brought to his knees at Runnymede, 
the victory of the 'constitutional' forces was symbolised by the insertion 
of three anti-Semitic clauses in Magna Carta. Archbishop Stephen Lang- 
ton, one of those who helped to draw it up, celebrated in English history 
as one of the architects of the constitution, was a notorious anti- 
Semite : he had an archdeacon, who married a Jewess and apostatised, 
burnt as a heretic, and he tried to enforce regulations compelling Jews 
to wear distinctive signs sewn on to their clothes. 

Magna Carta undermined the economic basis of English medieval 
Jewry, though the communities struggled on. In 1264, when the Crown 
was again humiliated, there was a further wave of pogroms: part of 
Simon de Montfort's popular appeal (he was, ironically, a French 
racist who despised the English) was his aggressive anti-Semitism. By 
the time Edward I, a most magisterial exponent of monarchical auth- 
ority, took over the government, English Jewry was near to ruin. In 
1275 he enacted a Statute of the Jews with the object of transforming 



them from usurers into artisans. But this aroused the fury of the city 
tradesmen ; moreover, it took from the Jews their unique role of service 
to the Crown. In 1290 Edward washed his hands of the problem and 
expelled the entire community, which was now destitute. In the four- 
teenth century English agriculture suffered grievously from the absence 
of Jewish finance, and the failure to provide a native substitute. 

The departure of the Jews created a new role for the Italians, both 
in the economy and in the English racial consciousness. They became 
the new hate-objects in the towns. The Italians were unpopular because 
they were bankers; because they were the chief beneficiaries of the 
system of papal provisions to English benefices which developed during 
the later Middle Ages, and because they were successful tradesmen, 
with regular emporia in the chief cities. With the decline of Crown 
authority under the Lancastrians, and especially under Henry vi, their 
lives and property were increasingly vulnerable, with Parliament natur- 
ally leading the xenophobic pack. In 1440-2 Parliament passed measures 
which, in effect, sanctioned piracy against merchant ships owned by 
foreigners. In 1456 and again the following year, there were anti-Italian 
riots in London. The Italians fled in terror to Southampton and made it 
their operational base; but in 1460 an anti-alien faction captured con- 
trol of the town, and the Italians left. One of the objects of Edward iv's 
restoration of royal power was to make England safe for foreign com- 
munities, and to end the legalised piracy conducted against foreigners 
in the Channel. On the whole he and his Tudor successors made steady 
progress; but hatred of the Italians remained a strong English charac- 
teristic. It was, of course, reciprocated. The prevailing Italian view 
seems to have been that England was a rich country, inhabited by 
barbarous fools, ripe for plucking by the civilised and the sophisticated. 
England, said the papal envoy Piero da Monte in 1436, was 'a very 
wealthy region, abounding in gold and silver and many precious 
things, full of pleasures and delights'. Silvestro Gigli, Henry vm's agent 
in Rome, put the point more crudely (or so the King was told) : 'Let the 
barbarous people of France and England every one kill another. What 
shall we care therefore so we have the money to make merry withal 
here ?' The English saw the Italians as greedy cosmopolitan adventurers, 
with no sense of nationhood, loyalty or patriotism. As one Elizabethan 
writer put it : 'The Italians serve all princes at once, and with their 
perfumed gloves and wanton presents, and gold enough to boot if 
need be, work what they list and lick the fat even from our beards/ 
Anti-Italian feeling was one of the great popular engines of the English 

It was, however, the French who above all crystallised, and then for 



centuries symbolised, the xenophobia of the emerging English nation. 
From the middle of the twelfth century until the middle of the nine- 
teenth, the external history of England is very largely the history of 
Anglo-French enmity. Sometimes the hostility is expressed in open war ; 
sometimes in diplomacy or commerce; sometimes in all three simul- 
taneously. From time to time a different enemy - the Spanish or the 
Dutch - flits briefly across the stage of history, as it were to separate the 
combatants; but always, and inexorably, the great brooding conflict 
between French and Englishmen seizes control again, and re-establishes 
the pattern of cross-Channel hatred. It is one of the great tragedies of 
mankind, this senseless aggression and rivalry between two well- 
endowed and immensely civilised peoples ; and who can swear that it will 
not break out again? Perhaps it is inevitable that the English should 
view with suspicion any power which occupies the southern shores of the 
Channel. We first hear of rabid anti-French feeling in England in the 
10505, when a French-speaking faction formed at the court of Edward 
the Confessor. But neither the Channel nor language provide a satis- 
factory explanation for the origins of the quarrel. The Normans had no 
sooner established themselves in England than they began a policy of 
relentless hostility towards the French Crown. The matrix of Anglo- 
French diplomacy was quickly established, with the French encouraging 
and financing anti-English factions in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and 
the English financing and arming anti-French coalitions in the Low 
Countries and Germany. Henry I inaugurated England's anti-French 
diplomacy in Germany by marrying his daughter to the Emperor, and 
later taking a bride from German-speaking Lorraine. Henry n began 
the new policy of subsidising elements hostile to France on her northern 
and eastern frontiers, and even in Italy; it was continued by Richard i 
and John, who built up an immense anti-French alliance in Flanders 
and along the Rhine. Over seven centuries the amount of English gold 
which has flowed overseas for this purpose is beyond computation. At 
one time or another, every independent territory - kingdoms, princi- 
palities, duchies, palatinates, counties, archbishoprics and city-states - 
within military striking distance of France, has been in the service of the 
English taxpayer, as can be seen from the exchequer pipe-rolls stretching 
from Henry n to William Pitt the Younger. 

This enmity transcended language and culture. The English aristo- 
cracy hated Frenchmen when they still spoke their language from birth, 
when indeed many of them stUl owned broad estates in France. The loss 
of Normandy in 1204 enormously widened the cleavage, because it 
meant that men who owned lands on both sides of the Channel had 
finally to choose their national allegiance; it meant also that the 



southern side of the Channel was now a hostile shore; it was thus a 
decisive event in English history.* But it did not only begin the struggle 
between the French and English States : it served to give that struggle 
an increasingly strident nationalistic flavour. The collapse of the French 
language in England in the fourteenth century was both a cause and a 
consequence of that intense phase of the struggle we know as the 
Hundred Years' War; it brought a cultural separation between the 
French and English ruling classes which made reconciliation more 

Yet the English attitude to French culture was curiously ambivalent. 
It was something the English - particularly the educated and leisured 
classes - felt they needed. French was the international language of 
culture, as Latin was of scholarship. The first flowerings of English 
national literature in the late fourteenth century were accompanied by 
strenuous efforts to keep up the study of written and spoken French. 
French was the vehicle by which new cultural elements reached this 
country; it was the hallmark of the fashionable and the pretentious to 
punctuate their speech with French words and expressions. In the 
intervals of hostilities, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Englishmen 
travelled widely in France, just as Englishmen would rush to Paris in 
the brief Peace of Amiens in 1802, and again after Waterloo. From the 
late fourteenth century we get the first French-conversation manuals 
for the use of English travellers. One, entitled La Maniere de language 
qui t'enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulx franfois, and dating 
from 1396, tells the Englishman what to say while on the road or at an 
inn. It unconsciously gives the English racial view of the French : how 
to instruct lazy, incompetent and venal French hostlers in their duties; 
how to tell French innkeepers to clean up their filthy and vermin-ridden 
bedrooms, and serve food which is wholesome and not messed-about ; 
how to take advantage of the lascivious French habit of supplying girls 
to travellers, and how to avoid being cheated in consequence. It differs 
only in detail - certainly not in fundamental attitudes - from the phrase- 
books supplied to the English Grand Tourists in the eighteenth century, 
or even the patrons of Mr Thomas Cook. The English were already 
beginning to attribute to the French all kinds of undesirable habits and 

* Among other things, it forced the English to maintain regular naval forces ; John's 
military incompetence thus gave him a place in history as the founder of the Royal Navy. 
By 1205 there were 51 royal galleys, grouped in three commands; about this time we first 
hear of Portsmouth as a naval base, the use of a mariner's compass, and of a code of 
maritime law; by John's command all vessels had to strike their colours when passing a 
king's ship. The sailors were paid $d a day, masters 6d - in advance. But press-gangs were 
soon necessary. John's first 'keeper of the King's ships' was an archdeacon, thus reviving 
a connection between the Church of England and the navy first established in the ninth 



attitudes and, with more justice, political customs which the English 
found abhorrent. 

Of course thjs racialism was based partly on fear: France was four 
times England's size, with many times its wealth and population ; it was 
universally assumed that the French were aggressive, predatory and 
malevolent towards the English: an early English proverb had it: 
'When the Ethiopian is white the French will love the English/ Torture 
was believed to have had its origins in France, and to flourish there. 
Fortescue drew rabid distinctions between English and French law, 
entirely in England's favour; the English King, he wrote, must rule in 
conjunction with the commonwealth while the French King was essen- 
tially an uncurbed tyrant. A fifteenth-century Frenchman related with 
horror that he overheard two citizens of London say that they would go 
on dethroning or executing kings until they found one who suited them. 
In 1460, the Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick, fomenting from 
Ireland a revolt to overthrow the Lancastrians, accused the Crown in 
their manifesto of seeking to introduce the abominable and servile 
French custom of conscription. Henry vn, exasperated with Parliament, 
said he would never summon one again, and would rule 'after the French 
fashion'. Even at moments of national reconciliation, the English racial 
hatred for the French festered beneath the surface. At the Field of the 
Cloth of Gold, the Venetian ambassador overheard a snatch of conversa- 
tion between the Marquis of Dorset and one of his friends: 'If I had a 
drop of French blood in my body, I would cut myself open and get rid of 

To some extent all English medieval governments were under pressure 
to make war against the French. While the tradition that the aristocracy 
owed some form of unpaid military service to the Crown persisted, there 
was a natural reluctance to cross the Channel for royal wars which 
brought no obvious profit to leading landowners; after the loss of Nor- 
mandy this became the chief bone of contention between John and his 
barons, as we shall see. But with the development of purely professional 
armies i$ thfc late thirteenth century, a huge segment of English society 
began to acquire a vested interest in perpetual warfare with the French. 
The armies, from top to bottom, were well paid so long as the Exchequer 
could continue to ship sacks of sterling silver across the Channel. The 
Black Prince got i a day for active service, an archer 4d, which was the 
annual rent for an acre of fertile arable land. Military success brought 
enormous profits, for all prisoners were ransomable, some for sums run- 
ning into tens, even hundreds of thousands; there was an elaborate 
system for the distribution of this livestock booty among the various 
ranks, and a regular market in captives, operated from Calais and other 



centres of trade. This system had the merit of keeping down the 
slaughter; but it was also a prime motive for renewing the conflict at 
the slightest excuse. 'By reason of these hot Wars/ wrote a contem- 
porary of Edward in, 'many poor and mean Fellows arrived to great 
riches/ The Duke of Gloucester complained to Richard n that peace 
'was disheartening to the poor knights, squires and archers of England'. 
Professional soldiers were not the only profiteers ; a huge segment of the 
English economy had a vested interest in supplying the wartime com- 
missariat; in the mid-fourteenth century, for instance, 2,000 bales of 
English cloth were supplied in a single year for the use of the navy. 
There was a popular impression that the wars brought a net profit to the 
English nation as a whole. It was assumed that war, if properly con- 
ducted, would pay for itself: this was emphatically laid down by 
Parliament in 1376. 

For the King, as personal head of the government, the wars brought 
both great opportunities and appalling risks. It was shown time and 
again that the King could establish the ascendancy of the monarchy in 
popular esteem by successful operations in France, even if these were 
expensive; equally, failure was bound to bring political retribution at 
home. Richard I, for instance, was one of the most irresponsible mon- 
archs ever to occupy the English throne. He was interested solely in the 
professional business of warfare and treated England (which he visited 
only for six months in a reign of ten years) purely as a bank for his 
expeditions. To get money, he auctioned off the government. As his 
biographer says: 'Everything was for sale - powers, lordships, 
earldoms, shrievalties, castles, towns, manors and the rest/ Richard 
joked: 'I would sell London if I could find someone to buy it/* Yet all 
this was redeemed by his dazzling reputation as an international com- 
mander ; a besotted and bellicose public made him a folk-hero even in his 
lifetime, and has honoured his memory ever since. John, by comparison, 
was a conscientious sovereign, but was ruined by military failure. The 
wretched Henry in, whose real interests lay in religion and the arts, who 

* c.f. the alleged remark of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, to 
John Foster Dulles during the 1956 Suez crisis: 'We would rather sell the National 
Gallery than surrender to Nasser/ Richard I's finances were erigulfed by the revolution 
in military technology caused by the Crusades, which brought an enormous increase in 
the cost of war. The pay of a knight went up to is a day ; men-at-arms cost 4d if mounted, 
2d on foot. In a single year Richard spent 49,000, more than the regular income of the 
English State, on fortifying part of Normandy; most of it went on a single castle, Chateau 
Gaillard. This expenditure was outrageous: a century later, Edward i managed to build 
first-rate castles in Wales for 10,000 each (but then he understood accountancy and 
cost-control). Hardwear, especially armour, became vastly more complex and expensive, 
and larger horses had to be bred to carry the increased weight. By the fourteenth century, 
a charger could cost 100 or even more; Richard n paid 200 for the horse he rode at his 
coronation. (For comparison, a first-class hunter cost up to 300 in the 18603.) 



had no aptitude for government and still less for warfare, nevertheless 
felt it incumbent on himself personally to conduct expeditions to 
France ; their inevitable failure, compounded by his preposterous scheme 
to make one of his sons King of Sicily, brought about the political crisis 
which made him the prisoner of the parliamentary party. Even his 
masterful son, Edward I, got into trouble towards the end of his 
reign through an unsuccessful French war. Edward in inherited a dis- 
graced and humiliated throne ; his father had been shamefully murdered, 
and he himself placed under the tutelage of a rapacious oligarchy. Yet 
all this was erased by the splendour of his French victories, ephemeral 
though they proved. His reputation as a warrior-king even survived 
long years of dotage, marked by economic distress and political chaos. 
Richard 11, who was mad, would probably have destroyed his dynasty 
in any case; what made his destruction certain was his attempt at 
authoritarian rule on the basis of peace and alliance with France, under 
which the French Crown pledged its support for Richard 'against all 
manner of people who owe him any obedience, and also to aid and 
sustain him with all their power against any of his subjects'. It was 
thought intolerable that an English king should conduct a frontal assault 
on the liberties of his subjects with the aid of England's natural enemies ; 
when Richard was brought to trial, 58 magnates, lay and ecclesiastical, 
were each asked to give their opinion separately: they were unanimous 
that he should be deposed and placed in perpetual imprisonment. 

The question of war with France continued to have a direct bearing 
on the fortunes of the English monarchy until the middle of the six- 
teenth century. Henry v reconstructed a strong central government - of 
a type denied to Richard 11 - entirely on the basis of his successful 
French campaigns; and it was the military failures which followed his 
death which destroyed the Lancastrians. A monarch was under no 
compulsion to get embroiled in France; both Edward iv and Henry VH 
declined to take the risk, and their prudence made possible the restora- 
tion of political stability. But it is significant that Henry vni, anxious 
to recreate the glamour of the English monarchy, embarked on unpro- 
voked and senseless aggression against France. Polydore Vergil states 
that Henry 'considered it his duty to seek fame by military skill' ; he 
commissioned an English translation of a French biography of Henry v, 
and in the introduction the translator calls on him to emulate his illus- 
trious predecessor. Henry, a conservative in all things, responded to the 
appeal with the same mindless improvidence of a Richard I or an 
Edward in; but maybe also he had a shrewd instinct that a victory over 
France still exercised a mesmeric appeal over the English public of all 
classes. He was, in this respect as in others, the last medieval king of 


England. Something of this old-fashioned and backward-looking 
potentate lingered on in his daughters. Mary felt the loss of Calais more 
than any other of her sorrows, though it was the most expensive and 
useless colony England has ever possessed. Even Elizabeth, as a young 
sovereign, felt the old hankerings, and tried to grab Le Havre. But 
experience brought wisdom. As the first modern-minded English mon- 
arch, she brought firmly to a close the long and fruitless history of 
England's efforts to acquire possessions in France. 

How was it possible that the English persisted in these atrocious and 
consciousless wars of aggression? Apart from Henry v, a very un- 
English monarch, whose fanatical religious zeal convinced him that he 
had a mission from Almighty God to occupy the French throne and 
who attributed his remarkable victories to the enthusiastic intervention 
of the Deity, the English did not take their French claims as anything 
more than a pretext. Violent chauvinism, I fear, was the biggest single 
impulse throughout. When, in 1295, an Englishman, Thomas de Turber- 
ville, was discovered to be working as a spy for Philip the Fair, the 
event created a national sensation; such treachery was regarded as 
unprecedented, and a crime against nature; as the spy was dragged to a 
horrible death, the Londoners tried to tear him apart with their bare 
hands. The Edwardian victories bred in the English a violent arrogance. 
Milan's ambassador to Burgundy wrote to his Duke in 1475: The 
English are a proud race, who respect nobody, and claim a superiority 
over all other nations/ The wars brought grave economic difficulties 
to England, but little direct physical suffering. The chief victims were 
French peasants.* Elaborate rules, on the whole well observed, governed 

* In theory medieval rules of war protected the clergy, and peasants going about their 
lawful business. But the evidence shows the rules were worthless. Edward in and the 
Black Prince sought to avoid pitched battles and used scorched-earth tactics to bring 
economic pressure on the French monarchy. Henry v alone imposed sufficient discipline 
to prevent excesses, at least against clerics, so that during his campaigns Norman pea- 
sants donned monks' cowls to escape slaughter. But as a rule the English had no respect 
for Church property. In 1373 an eyewitness said he saw over 100 mass-chalices robbed 
from churches being used as drinking-bowls at a supper given by Sir John Harleston and 
his men. Both sides murdered and tortured French peasants to extract money. A report 
on the excesses of the Dauphin's soldiers in Luxeuil and Faucogney in 1439 contains 
marginal references to 'femme violee*, 'gens crucifiez, rotiz et penduz', 'homme roty', etc. 
Even theoretical writers on war made no bones about the realities. In The Tree of Battles, 
Bonet writes : 'In these days all wars are directed against poor labouring people.' Paris de 
Pozzo admits in De Re Militari: 'A man may not torture a prisoner to extort money from 
him by way of ransom, but it is different in the case of peasants, at least according to the 
custom of the mercenaries.' Thus medieval chivalry, whose fundamental principle was 
the protection of the weak by the strong, proved meaningless. See Maurice H. Keen: The 
Laws of War in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1965) and H. J.Hewitt: The Organisation 
of War under Edward IU. 1338-62 (Manchester, 1966) ; recent work is summarised in 
Kenneth Fowler (ed.) : The Hundred Years War (London, 1971). 



relations between the combatants, but there was no protection whatso- 
ever for civilians, who were invariably robbed by both sides and mur- 
dered in their thousands. Whole communities starved to death in the 
wake of voracious armies. Pestilence was the only impartial leveller. It 
debilitated and then destroyed the Black Prince; the arch-aggressor 
Henry v met a miserable end from dysentery. The Church, the one inter- 
national institution which commanded some kind of respect, made 
periodic efforts to arbitrate. On several occasions the popes were able 
to arrange truces; but equally often they egged on the combatants, 
especially in times of papal schism, with rival popes backing the oppos- 
ing sides. All the armies were blessed by the national hierarchies. Wyclif , 
in this as in other respects ahead of his time, denounced 'the sin of the 
realm in invading the kingdom of France'; but his was a lonely voice.* 
Very few people questioned the morality of anti-French aggression, 
merely its expediency. 

Indeed, the only restraints on English militarism were financial. But 
these restraints were important. The medieval English were exception- 
ally violent, aggressive, xenophobic and racialist ; they were also greedy, 
parsimonious, business-minded and pharisaical They applauded aggres- 
sion; they were much less anxious to finance it. They thought war was 
a business, which should turn in a profit. In fact it never did so. From 
the reign of Richard i, when the French wars opened in earnest, the 
English Crown was heavily in debt, and at times actually bankrupt, for 
three centuries; and the biggest single drain, by far, was the aggression 
in France; the retention of Calais alone cost a fifth of the regular 
revenues of the State. Only the action of Edward iv, in renouncing his 
French claims in return for a regular pension, brought the English 
Government back to solvency; and it was Henry vin, by resuming the 
war, who once more toppled the English Government into debt, a 
position from which it has never since recovered. Of course these facts 

* There was a strong anti-violence, even pacifist, strain among the Reformers. Bishop 
Pecock, an Establishment maverick of the mid-fifteenth century, denounced the war 
with France as immoral; he also argued that the Lollards should be fought with reason, 
not the stake, and ended his days in close confinement in a monastery. Roger Ascham 
called chivalry a licence to plunder and murder. The Pope, on the other hand, egged on 
Henry vin to invade France, and promised him the Crown if he succeeded. To the anti- 
French nationalism of the English Church in the fourteenth century we owe English 
perpendicular architecture, developed in preference to later French Gothic. The design of 
the choir of Gloucester Cathedral, its first masterpiece, coincided with the decade of 
Crecy and Sluys. The Scots, in alliance with France, clung tenaciously to 'flamboyant' 
Gothic in the French style. The English clergy 'did their bit* to help* the war-effort. The 
English had long been jealous of the French kings, who were anointed, at their corona- 
tion, with oil presented by the Angel Gabriel to Clovis. In 1399, just in time for Henry rv's 
coronation, the Canterbury monks 'discovered* a jar of oil presented to St Thomas Becket 
by no less a person than the Virgin Mary. 


are more apparent to modern historians, who can analyse the State 
accounts over long periods, than they were to the English ruling class at 
the time. But whenever the English grasped the point that the war was 
losing money, as from time to time they did, they were abruptly over- 
come by a rash of pacifism. One might say that much of the history of 
England has been a conflict between xenophobia and avarice, with the 
latter usually, in the end, getting the upper hand. The irresistible force 
of the English desire for war meets the immovable object of the refusal 
to pay for it. The English love to inflict violence on foreigners ; happily 
they love money more. This is the hammer and anvil which forged the 
structure of English political society. 

Consider, for instance, the history of Magna Carta, which is an 
example of this process in operation; it also illustrates the English 
political genius for transforming the muddles in which they involve 
themselves into triumphs of the national spirit. It is worth examining 
in some detail because it tells us a great deal about our national char- 
acter. The crisis which led to Runnymede really began in 1204, when 
John lost Normandy in circumstances which suggested he lacked nerve, 
resolution and energy, and was quite possibly a coward. The English 
ruling class wanted the duchy back, for personal as well as national 
reasons ; but they did not think John was the man to recover it, at least 
by a frontal invasion; at all events they were not prepared to help him 
do so. It was easy to make life difficult for the French King, by financing 
his enemies, and by using the navy to protect them. This John did; and 
so far so good. In 1213 his ships demolished the French fleet at Zwyn, in 
Flanders. He carried on financial warfare on a considerable scale. The 
anti-French emperor, Otto, got 1,000 marks a year; the Count of 
Boulogne a pension of 1,000 ; large sums went to the Dukes of Limburg 
and Brabant, the Counts of Flanders and Holland, and to hundreds of 
Flemish knights kept permanently on John's payroll. The anti-French 
coalition thus created was not as formidable as it looked on paper, but 
it had considerable nuisance value. The English did not resent the role 
of paymaster. They were quite prepared to defend their own territory. 
Great preparations were made to resist invasion. Every male over 12 
took an oath. Constables were appointed to organise the urban com- 
munes 'for the defence of the kingdom, and the preservation of the 
peace against foreigners and other disturbers'. These steps were not 
unpopular; on the contrary. But what aroused increasing opposition was 
John's evident determination to make the English fight in France, under 
his command. They thought he was incompetent, treacherous and un- 
reliable in a crisis. They knew he was cruel, and a liar; most of them 
believed he had murdered his nephew Arthur with his own hands, in a 



drunken rage.* Though quite prepared to fight the French by other 
means, they would not serve under him across the sea; nor would they 
finance such an expedition. John's advisers warned him against such a 
policy in 1205 ; but he returned to it again and again, as if his honour 
could not be satisfied until he personally beat Philip Augustus on his 
own soil. In 1213 he conducted a formidable inquest on the military 
service owed to him by his tenants-in-chief. Many of the barons, par- 
ticularly from northern and eastern England, made their opposition 
perfectly plain. But the next year John sent an army to bolster up his 
motley Flanders coalition, and himself landed in La Rochelle to attack 
the French from the south. This venture, flying in the face of growing 
national sentiment, might have undermined criticism by success. But 
John was deserted by his Poitevin allies in the south, and his stipen- 
diaries in the north met complete disaster at the Battle of Bouvines. He 
returned to England a conspicuous and humiliated failure; but almost 
his first act there was to impose a provocative three-mark (405) scutage 
per knight's fee on all the barons - the vast majority - who had not 
come to France with him. This was the immediate, as well as the funda- 
mental, cause of the baronial revolt. 

Now all Anglo-Norman and Angevin administrations had faced 
baronial conspiracies, which were ill-formulated and narrowly based 
affairs, promoted by personal frustrations and ambitions. But John, 
like Stephen, was gravely weakened by a headlong conflict with the 
Pope. This was no novelty either; but always, in the past, the majority 
of bishops had closed ranks behind the King. It was John's misfortune 
that he not only had to contend with the masterful Philip Augustus in 
secular matters, but in Church affairs faced the most audacious and 
relentless of all the medieval popes, Innocent in. In 1205 Canterbury 
fell vacant. The monks of the chapter, without royal permission, elected 
their prior; then, terrified by John's angry reaction, accepted his 
nominee. The Pope quashed both elections, summoned the chapter to 
Rome, and forced on it an English cardinal, Stephen Langton, who was 

* Some of the stories about John's cruelty are exaggerations, or at least unproven. But 
he certainly starved to death the wife and son of William of Braose in Windsor Castle ; 
and 22 of his prisoners died of starvation in Corfe Castle. He enjoyed watching judicial 
combats, which were often horrible affairs; English public opinion was already sharply 
opposed to them. Apart from his cruelty and military incompetence, it is difficult to see 
why he aroused so much dislike. He was well educated (Glanvill had been his tutor, 
and fond of reading ; in 1 203, 433 lod was paid 'for chests and carts for carrying the King's 
books beyond the sea'. He took a bath on average every three weeks, and was the first 
English king to wear a dressing-gown. He had a huge collection of jewels. Although he 
had at least five bastards, and a mistress called Suzanne, he founded Beaulieu Abbey, 
gave donations to many religious houses, and regularly fined himself for breaking fast or 
going fishing on feast-days. John was exactly 5 ft 5 ins tall, as was confirmed when his 
tomb, in Worcester Cathedral, was opened in the late eighteenth century. 


a reliable exponent of his canonical views. There was no precedent for 
such a brutal infringement of the royal prerogative, and John naturally 
refused to confirm the appointment: from 1207, when he was conse- 
crated, until 1213, Langton was unable to set foot in England. In 1208 
Innocent imposed an interdict on England, which in theory at least 
meant the suspension of all Church rites ; and the next year he excom- 
municated the King. By itself, such a breach with the Church need not 
be disastrous: John began by taking the interdict calmly - it was not 
widely observed - and even threatened to hang anyone who insulted 
papalist clergymen; but after his excommunication, more and more of 
the bishops turned against him, and his anger and exactions increased. 
Royal agents seized Church property, and diverted its revenues on a 
growing scale to the Exchequer: over 100,000 was thus obtained. 
These funds largely paid for John's successful expeditions in 1210-12 in 
Scotland, Ireland and Wales; and to that extent his conflict with the 
Church was popular with the laity. But a kingdom at odds with Rome 
was the potential object of a crusade: and Philip laid claim to John's 
throne in the name of the Deity, rather as the Conqueror had done 150 
years before. In 1213 John abruptly turned Innocent from an enemy 
into an ally by resigning the kingdom to him, and receiving it back under 
an oath of fealty; all charges against him were withdrawn, the bishops 
returned, and Innocent now exerted his considerable diplomatic powers 
on behalf of his new subject. 

This desperate act of realpolitik might have solved all John's troubles. 
But the military disasters of 1214, and his ill-judged reaction to them, 
turned many of the barons, who had stood by him against the Church, 
decisively against him. The Church, in theory - and in practice, so far as 
Innocent's orders were obeyed - was now on his side; but many of the 
senior clergy had bitter financial grievances against the Crown. In any 
case, the submission to Rome had placed the Crown in a new legal con- 
text, opening the gates wide to constitutional opposition. It was now 
possible, for instance, for the barons to lay their grievances against John 
in the papal court. How far opposition to an anointed king was lawful 
had been for half a century a subject of debate. In 1159 John of Salis- 
bury had published his Polycraticus, the first attempt to expound a 
philosophy of politics: this declared it obligatory to dethrone, even 
assassinate, an evil king; but of course John of Salisbury was thinking 
purely in terms of a conflict between Church and State. An alternative 
view, on behalf of the royal administration, was put in the Dialogus, 
written by Henry n's treasurer about 1178: Though abundant riches 
may often come to kings, not by some weU attested rights but . . . even 
by arbitrary decisions made at their pleasure, yet their deeds must not 


be discussed or condemned by their inferiors/ How far all, or indeed 
any, of John's barons were familiar with such arguments is not known; 
but the legal revolution of the twelfth century had forced all landowners 
to take a much more sophisticated interest in the law, and to adjust 
their ideas accordingly; and it is significant that John's most resolute 
critics came from the younger, better-educated, generation. In any case, 
the barons were perfectly aware of what might be called the constitu- 
tional tradition of the English State. They might not know of ^thelred's 
concessions of 1014; but they certainly knew of the coronation charters. 
John had given one himself, in which he had promised to end an 
abuse of Richard's of particular concern to the barons - the royal device 
of forcing tenants-in-chief to get their charters re-sealed on payment of a 
stiff fee. Versions of both the laws of Edward the Confessor and of 
Henry i's coronation charter were circulating at this time. Magna Carta 
was not a bolt from the blue but the expansion of a long-established, if 
intermittent, practice ; it was called great simply because it was so long. 

Nevertheless, though the background to the crisis is clear, everything 
else about the charter, except its basic chronology, is surrounded by 
mystery. Far from being simple, it is one of the most puzzling and 
complex events in English history. As we have seen, a baronial party 
had been collecting even before John went on his disastrous French 
expedition. After his return, he met these barons at Bury St Edmunds 
in November 1214, at London at the end of the month, and in the new 
year in London again : discussions were angry and inconclusive, and a 
truce was arranged until April. Both parties appealed to the Pope. In 
March the Pope instructed the barons to abandon their conspiracies, but 
on the other hand told the King to meet their just demands. In April, 
the King met certain barons, probably loyal to him, and later in the 
month they acted as intermediaries with the rebels; on 26 April the 
truce expired. In May the King offered to provide a charter himself, 
saving his right of appeal to the Pope; he also offered to go to arbitra- 
tion, with the Pope as 'superior'. The barons occupied London, and 
further truces were arranged. On 15 June the King met the barons at 
Runnymede, and in the next five days the charter was negotiated, 
agreed, signed and sealed. On 17 July the King met the barons at Oxford 
to arrange for the execution of the charter; but the meeting broke up in 
disagreement, and immediately afterwards the King wrote to the Pope 
asking him to quash the charter. The barons defied the King in August, 
the Pope excommunicated them, and civil war broke out. 

This is the chronology; but what of the objects and motives of the 
parties? This was a protracted and multiple negotiation. There were 
the northern and eastern barons ; there were other barons who supported 


them ; there were some barons who supported the King ; there were some 
who regarded themselves as intermediaries ; there was the royal adminis- 
tration, including substantial lay and clerical landowners ; there was a 
Church party loyal to the King and another, under Langton, which was 
intrinsically hostile to John, or at least neutral, but under pressure from 
the Pope to support him ; there was the Pope himself, represented by his 
legate; and finally the King. All had different objects and motives; no 
wonder there was confusion and cross-purposes, with letters and envoys 
travelling to and fro between Rome and England, and up and down the 

The dissident barons were clear, or thought they were clear, on their 

objects. They did not want to serve abroad, or pay for others to do so, 

except by consent. They wanted an end to a variety of exactions they 

felt were illegal ; trial by the customary processes ; and affairs of State 

to be settled in the King's great council, with their right of attendance 

(in the case of great barons) or representation (in the case of lesser 

barons) guaranteed. The first demand - service abroad - was obviously 

what mattered most to the more obdurate rebels. It is conceded in a 

preliminary draft, called The Unknown Charter of Liberties', probably 

drawn up in May. But it does not appear at all in Magna Carta itself. As 

for the exactions - as regards wardship, marriage, and so forth - kings 

had always readily conceded them before ; it may have been a positive 

advantage to the administration to have them codified, as Magna Carta 

does; in any case, many of these dues were already obsolescent. The 

demand for formal councils is still more mysterious. The strongest kings 

had always been anxious to conduct important business surrounded by 

as many tenants-in-chief as possible. That was the object of the solemn 

crown-wearings, three times a year. At one of them, for instance, the 

Conqueror had settled the plan for Domesday Book. Rufus had insisted 

that all his magnates should attend him from time to time, and regarded 

those who did not as potential rebels. A king liked to do business with 

the great personally, look them in the eye, discover what they were 

really thinking. Again, no great act of State could be carried through 

effectively without the general approval of the aristocracy. All Henry 

n's solemn assizes had been attended by a multitude of barons. John had 

not only continued this practice, he had formalised it. In 1213 he had 

held an assembly at St Albans, to which he had summoned not only 

tenants-in-chief but four men and the reeve from each township on the 

royal lands ; a few months later, at Oxford, he had again summoned the 

barons, plus four lawful men from each shire, to discuss, as the writ said, 

'the affairs of our realm at our colloquy'. Why should the King now be 

forced to concede what he had already expressly practised? 



We cannot make sense of the charter if we regard it as a baronial 
document. Nor was it simply a version of a baronial list of demands, 
sifted and softened down by an establishment party, under Langton. 
Langton was a feeble nonentity, unfamiliar with English politics, 
personally unknown to the barons, important only in so far as he pos- 
sessed the Pope's confidence ; when he lost this, shortly after the charter 
was signed, the Pope snuffed him out, and he ceased to count at all. 
What, then, was the charter? The only real answer is that it was a 
muddle, a spatchcocked compromise which did not represent the atti- 
tudes of any of the parties - or, rather, represented bits of all of them - 
and was therefore unworkable as a political settlement. Its very spirit 
was confused. Baronial demands in the past, and indeed on this occasion, 
were essentially conservative. They wanted the clock put back to where, 
in their view, it had always been: this was what the coronation charters 
meant. All revolts against the King were in the strict sense reactionary. 
It was the King who, traditionally, had the reformer's role. Henry n j s 
great assizes were essentially innovatory. It was Henry, Richard and 
John, prompted by the demands of the administration and its growing 
expertise, who had brought in changes, most of them beneficial. The 
barons stood for stability, the Crown for movement. But the charter, 
as eventually signed, stands for both. It is a document without a unify- 
ing viewpoint. Nor is this surprising, granted the circumstances of its 
creation. The parties involved were too numerous, the physical forces 
behind them too evenly balanced, to produce any other result. The barons 
dropped the demand about overseas service. But they successfully 
inserted a 'security clause', appointing a committee of 25 barons as 
watchdog on the King's behaviour. The Church got in a clause about its 
own rights. London got in a clause protecting its liberties. Virtually all 
the parties were in debt, so three clauses were accordingly inserted, the 
onus of which fell largely on the Jews. The drafting of the treaty, as of 
the earlier barons' demands, was in the hands of the administration, for 
the Chancery clerks alone could do a job of this kind. So many clauses 
were inserted to suit the convenience of bureaucracy, and others were 
tidied up in a manner approved by royal officials. Some radical fellow 
even succeeding in putting in a bit to protect the rights of villeins. During 
these five days of argument and re-drafting, the charter grew and grew. 
It became enormous, in its totality quite beyond the comprehension of 
any one of the parties. After the solemn agreement, when the exhilara- 
tion died down, men began to read the small script again. All of them 
found something they disliked. To the northern barons, the overseas 
service clause was crucial; to omit it was to yield the whole issue. Some 
of them left Runnymede in anger before the charter was even signed. To 



John, the inclusion of the security clause was equally intolerable; when, 
a month after Runnymede, the barons made it clear they intended to 
enforce it, he denounced the whole document. But if the King had 
adhered to the charter, in the sense he placed on it, the barons would 
have denounced it in their turn. The story of Magna Carta, in fact, is not 
of a negotiation which succeeded, but of one which failed. 

Happily the genius of the English for rewriting history while it is still 
happening turned an acrimonious disaster into a triumph of constitu- 
tional good sense and moderation. As Cnut was transformed from a 
Scandinavian ruffian into an English Christian gentleman, as the dis- 
aster of Dunkirk was transmuted into the prelude to victory, so by a 
process of constructive national myopia the confusion and muddle of 
Magna Carta was canonised as the bedrock of the English constitution. 
Innocent in conveniently died the next year, closely followed by John 
himself; the removal of the two chief actors cleared the way for creative 
fiction. With a new, young king on the throne, the charter, suitably 
amended, could be represented as a solemn concordat, to which all the 
community subscribed; what was actually in it mattered less than the 
consensus it inspired. It was reissued in 1216, and again the next year; 
it took its final form in 1225, was confirmed by the King in 1237, i n 
1297 and on many subsequent occasions - at least 32 times in all. It 
was entered as the first document on the statute book, thus ousting from 
the honour the more important and deserving acts of Henry n. It 
became a national institution, a symbol not of the civil war it provoked, 
but of the constitutional peace it was supposed to have established. Few 
read it; everyone quoted it.* Archbishop Pecham flourished it against 
the King in the defence of the rights of the Church; Edward I flourished 
it against the Pope in defence of the rights of the State ; Parliament cited 
it against the Crown and the Crown against Parliament; unlettered 
peasants used it against their masters, masters against townsfolk, towns- 
folk against rural lords. To appeal to Magna Carta became the one, great, 
unanswerable argument which any and every section of society could 
employ. Within a generation its provisions became largely incompre- 
hensible - some of them remain enigmas even today - but it was none 
the less the written embodiment of the golden English past, a massive 
monument of constitutional rectitude. For the first time it made politics 

* Even today Englishmen frequently cite Magna Carta without knowing what is in it; 
in 1970 I heard Lord Wigg, Chairman of the Race Course Board, claim on the BBC that 
off-course betting was a unique English right, guaranteed by Magna Carta. The Americans 
have inherited this characteristic. All swear by the Declaration of Independence; few 
know what it says. In 1970, in Cleveland, Ohio, its text, without attribution, was shown 
to passers-by, who were asked to sign it; only one in 50 did so; the rest declined, on the 
grounds that it was 'commie stuff', 'written by hippies', etc. 



respectable, because it made them old. So the English came to see com- 
promise, consultation, the settlement of dispute by argument as opposed 
to force as their outstanding national characteristics; and in time shaped 
their habits to conform with this image. The history of Magna Carta is a 
triumph of English hypocrisy - always one of our most useful assets. 

The development of English political society in the long shadow cast 
by Magna Carta is rich in irony and paradox. It cannot successfully be 
analysed in terms of conflict between the classes. Men believed that such 
conflicts were, or ought to be, unnecessary, for each section of the com- 
munity had its ancient and predestined role to play, and conflict was 
a sign of malfunctioning, to be corrected by a return to the past. What 
everyone wanted was continuity; all men were, or believed themselves 
to be, conservatives; political progress was thus in fact achieved only 
by what might be termed constructive self-delusion, by the use of con- 
servative instruments to achieve radical reform. This applied both to 
acts and to institutions. Thus Edward I, for instance, who undoubtedly 
regarded himself - and was so regarded - as an ultra-orthodox conser- 
vative, inaugurated a social revolution by statute under the impression 
that he was putting the clock back in the soundest possible manner. His 
two great acts of Quo Warranto and Quia Emptores were designed, as he 
saw it, to curb and redress illegal innovations over the whole field of 
tenurial rights, to stop landowners from acquiring privileges for which 
they had no warrant, and from creating new social structures in the 
disposition of their lands. He intended them to be thoroughly reactionary 
pieces of legislation, which would have met with the warm approval of 
such illustrious predecessors as William the Conqueror and Henry 11. 
They were indeed popular for this reason; but their net effect, in the 
long term, was to destroy the tenurial basis of society, to undermine the 
system - which went back to the origins of English society, and which 
the Conquest had merely reinforced - under which political, military 
and jurisdictional power sprang directly from the ownership of great 
landed estates. It was one of the decisive events in English history, for 
henceforth men would have to seek power increasingly through the 
formal institutions of the State. 

Yet these institutions were seen not as instruments of change but, on 
the contrary, as the tenacious guardians of custom, a guarantee that the 
past could always be conjured up to buttress the present against the 
future. Parliament was essentially a development of the later Middle 
Ages ; not until after 1325 was it established that it must include repre- 
sentatives of the shires and boroughs; not until 1376 do we find a 
Parliament angrily and self-righteously taking to task a corrupt and 
unsuccessful administration; not until the mid-fifteenth century do we 



find a desperate government, in extremis, submitting a form of national 
accounts to Parliament, to prove that it simply could not carry on with- 
out more money. Yet nobody regarded Parliament as in any sense an 
innovation, still less a revolutionary instrument ; they believed it had 
always existed and had always exercised, more or less, its current func- 
tions; its customs had been honoured, in the phrase parliamentarians 
used repeatedly, 'since time out of mind'. There were no historical or 
constitutional textbooks; such relevant literature as existed always 
stressed the immemorial antiquity of everything. In any case, institu- 
tions were seen not merely as ancient but as natural and God-ordained. 
In the twelfth century John of Salisbury had described the State as a 
body, with the King the head and other sections of society as the limbs 
and organs. The image persisted, though sometimes with variations. In 
the mid-fifteenth century, Sir John Fortescue, in a sophisticated dis- 
cussion of how England was governed, saw the King 'as a stomake which 
dystrybuteth the mete that it receyveth to all the members and retey- 
neth no thynge to hym self but only the neuryssynge'. Such natural 
arrangements could not be changed; they could only live, and grow. 
Even where commentators had a distinct political viewpoint, they pre- 
sented it as fact, not programme. Thus, a mysterious document called 
the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, now known to date from 1321, is 
clearly written from the point of view of a parliamentarian anxious to 
enlarge its powers and privileges. But he does not say: This is what 
Parliament ought to do; 1 he says: This is what Parliament does, and 
has always done/ He was lying, or rather exaggerating. But his tract 
was popular, and was reissued and added to many times over the next 
century; eventually the practice of parliament - influenced no doubt by 
the tract - did indeed come to correspond with its theories. 

Parliament, in fact, did not become an open political issue until long 
after it had established itself as an indissoluble part of the political 
fabric. It spoke for the realm; that was its job; the more accurately it 
reflected opinion - that is, the more representative it was - the more 
effectively that job could be performed. Broadly speaking, Parliament 
was there to help the King to perform some national task which was 
beyond his own unaided powers. Its duty, says an official document of 
1300, is 'to hear and do what is necessary for the common convenience 
of the realm'. Walter Burley, commenting on Aristotle's Politics in 1340, 
says: The King convokes Parliament to deal with hard matters/ Two 
hundred years later, we find Henry vm telling the Commons that his 
power, majesty and dignity is never so great as when Parliament is 
sitting and the Crown is operating through it. Parliament is the servant 
of the executive government, though a servant which enjoys consider- 



able (and increasing) trade union rights. Its primary function is to raise 
emergency revenue. The King is always in debt, for his normal sources 
of income, through which in theory he should conduct the business of the 
kingdom, tend to be static, and are continually overtaken by the creep- 
ing inflation which is characteristic of all dynamic societies, and is a 
constant motive-force behind political change. Only Parliament can 
provide the money, because only those who attend it can, in practice, 
ensure that it is collected. But Parliament does other things to help the 
King. His sworn duty is to prevent undesirable change. Society is mov- 
ing forward under its own impetus ; from time to time the King must 
call a halt, by some resounding statute ; such acts often have the opposite 
effect to that intended; they invariably have unforeseen effects; but 
this point is never grasped. Parliament is called in to give the King's 
acts authority and to make them work. It shares the job of dealing with 
petitions and grievances, and eventually takes over the whole business. 
There is nothing new in this. Grievances have always been presented to 
the Crown for redress. They call not for change and innovation, but 
for reform - for the restoration of ancient rights, and the original, 
mythical justice. Parliament thus comes to be identified with liberty 
because it is seen as the most effective means by which new oppressions 
can be removed, and the past restored. Even Milton, writing Area- 
pagitica during a political revolution, had no higher ambition for 
Parliament than this : 'When complaints are freely heard, deeply con- 
sidered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil 
liberty that wise men look for/ 

Hence it is wholly mistaken to see the origins of Parliament as an 
attempt to challenge, let alone usurp, the power of the executive. In the 
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Parliament was employed to ratify 
the deposition of kings, but it always did so on the instructions of the 
ruling group and the new monarch, to vest with legality a fait accompli, 
and usually on the grounds of restoring justice. This power, said Parlia- 
ment, was based 'on ancient statute and modern precedent*. Again, 
Henry vm used Parliament to provide a legal framework for the reli- 
gious revolution he had ordained; but again the object was to restore 
what all agreed, sincerely or not, to have been the original situation. 
That was what the Middle English word 'reform' meant ; not until the 
late eighteenth century did it assume the modern connotation of intro- 
ducing change without precedent. 

Indeed, the idea of a dynamic conflict between the executive and 
institutions representing the public was, and is, wholly alien to the 
English mind. The English have always gratefully accepted strong 
central government, based on ancient custom. What they wanted - what 



they have always wanted - was the kind of regime provided by Edward 
I, one of the greatest of the English kings. Edward was 35 when he came 
to the throne, an immensely experienced administrator and soldier, 
with a European reputation. He was tall - over six feet - wore his 
clothes and armour well, moved with grace and dignity, had a fine, 
powerful voice, a wide vocabulary, a talent for impressive phraseology. 
His manners were exemplary, with a touch of gravity. He always looked 
and behaved like a king. He understood perfectly, and shared, the 
assumptions, tastes, likes and dislikes, prejudices and emotions of the 
ruling territorial aristocracy. It did not occur to him that a king who 
knew his business need fall out with those whom God and nature, logic, 
precedent and ancient custom, had appointed to act with him in the 
affairs of the community. He put his theory of the constitution neatly in 
1280 when he said he would always 'according to God and justice do 
what the prelates and magnates of the realm shall advise, especially as 
no one supposes that such prudent men will give the King advice dis- 
sonant with or contrary to reason'. He was a thoroughly professional 
king, active, industrious, well informed, able to discuss details of law 
with his judges, to draft a statute, to preside over the King's Bench, and 
the Court of the Exchequer, to draw up a line of battle and supervise 
the construction of a fortress. He was the last English monarch to pos- 
sess a detailed grasp of the whole range of government activities. But 
even he found this exacting role a strain. He sought to conserve his time 
and energy by the deliberate and methodical conduct of business, regu- 
larly summoning Parliament in the late spring and late autumn, to 
coincide with the busiest periods of the financial year, thus concentrat- 
ing administrative work at a fixed time and place. But it is significant 
that all the troubles of his reign occurred during the last decade, when he 
was an old man and his mental and physical energies failing. No 
medieval king was safe once he had passed the prime of life : kingship 
was a pitiless and ultimately thankless career. 

No later monarchical head of government came within measurable 
distance of Edward as a chief executive. Some could not even act the 
part : his own son, Edward n, whom he despised, was a man of common 
tastes, who enjoyed digging, rowing and village sports - harmless 
enough to us, but fatal to the authority of medieval kingship.* Some 
tried to act the part without the substance: Richard n's theatrical dress- 
ing-up of the throne, his instructions that men should grovel before 
him, and genuflect when his eye alighted on them, his flourishing a sword 
at his archbishop - these empty gestures carried no weight and eventu- 

* But even Edward has found an apologist. See H. F. Hutchison: Edward n, The 
Pliant King (London 1971). 



ally aroused contempt and hatred. The big men of the realm could see 
that he was not the genuine article, that he did not know his business, 
and he was snuffed out without compunction or pity. As for Henry vi, 
even the commonest people could see he would not do : the Londoners 
despised him for being seen always in the same old blue surcoat, 'as 
thowth he hadd noo moo to channge with'.* His virtues were disastrous 
handicaps. Loathing warfare, he sang hysterically during the battles 
which his supporters insisted he should witness. He could not even 
recognise the stinking quarter of a convicted traitor, as it hung in the 
London street ; he had to be told what it was, and recoiled in horror. He 
was prudish: Tie, fie, for shame!' he said to a troupe of topless dancers, 
and he objected even to seeing naked men taking the waters in Bath. 
The English did not want a monk on the throne, and only the vigorous 
efforts of his ferocious wife, a 'she-wolf of France', kept him on it so 

Edward in could, and did, perform the physical functions of mon- 
archy with success. He got on well with the grandees, was successful in 
battle, enjoyed the military theatricals of chivalry - as in the Garter 
ceremonies he devised. But unlike his grandfather, he never mastered 
the less spectacular side of government business. His debts were beyond 
remedy, his administration was always in chaos, and his regime, such 
as it was, quickly dissolved into warring factions when, at the age of 60, 
his powers began to fail. His was a fagade of professional kingship. 
Perhaps, as the complexities of administration grew, this was all anyone 
could reasonably expect. Henry v made a deliberate effort to grasp again 
all the reins of power; hugely self-confident, industrious, clear in his 
objectives and determined to have his way in all things, he was a fright- 
ening and much feared figure among the ruling class; but he simply did 
not have the time to supervise directly the administration of justice and 
finance, while engaged on a war of conquest. 

A king, increasingly, had to choose those aspects of government on 
which he preferred to concentrate. Edward iv restored the authority, 
and solvency, of central government by deliberately renouncing his 
foreign claims. Even so, there was something of a juggling-act quality 
about his highly successful period of office. He had to stoop to things 

* But Henry vi could be extravagant in the cause of culture; like other English kings 
who patronised the arts (Richard n, Charles i, George iv) he thereby added to his financial 
difficulties, and died owing over ^350,000, nearly seven times his annual regular income. 
His foundation at Eton was very costly, and when Edward iv took over he wanted to 
wind it up, but was dissuaded, no doubt by wily Old Etonians. The Yorkists favoured 
Wykehamists. One of them, John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, preached the sermon at the 
opening of Richard ill's 1484 parliament; he said its duty was 'to harken to the commyn 
voyce grownded in a resonable presydent* - a typical Wykehamist sermon. 



which his predecessors would have found repugnant. He sold his birth- 
right in France for a (very welcome) pension from the French Crown ; 
he personally engaged in trading operations, which brought him huge 
profits ; he ran the Crown lands with the sharp eye of an estate agent ; he 
was the first king - the first English politician, indeed - who engaged 
in a deliberate policy of fostering good public relations, especially with 
the mercantile community of London. Six London aldermen were made 
Knights of the Bath, not for any particular services, but merely to mark 
Edward's coronation; a very early example of the honours list. In 1474 
we find his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, no doubt on the King's instruc- 
tions, writing to one of her bailiffs, and commanding him 

... to deliver to our trusty and well beloved the mayor and brethren of my 
Lord's city of Coventry and their wives . . . twelve bucks of this season to be 
evenly distributed amongst them; that is to say, six of the said bucks to the 
said mayor and his brethren, and the other six of them to their said wives . . . 

In 1482 Edward invited the Lord Mayor of London, the city aldermen, 
and 'a certain number of such head commoners as the mayor would 
assign' to meet him in the royal forest at Waltham. There they were 
given an excellent morning's sport, and afterwards they were 

. . . brought to a strong and pleasant lodge made of green boughs and other 
pleasant things. Within which lodge were laid certain tables, whereat at once 
the said mayor and his company were set and served right plenteously with 
all manner of dainties as if they had been in London, and especially of venison 
both of red deer and of fallow and ... all kinds of Gascon wines in right 
plenteous manner. 

Twice during the meal Edward sent the Lord Chamberlain 'to make 
them cheer', and did not sit down to his own dinner 'till he saw that 
they were served'. Afterwards the King went hunting with them again, 
and a few days later he sent the wives of his guests 'two harts and six 
bucks with a tun of Gascon Wine'.* For this shameless type of PR 
exercise Edward was well suited: a large, fleshy, handsome, carnal man, 
always smiling, friendly to all, a great teller of dirty stories. f He boasted 

* The tradition of royal PR hospitality lingers on anaemically in the Buckingham 
Palace garden-party. Edward iv's magnates also engaged in politically motivated 
hospitality. When the Earl of Warwick was in London six oxen were consumed for break- 
fast in his house ; anyone with a suitable introduction could attend, and take away with 
him as much meat as he could carry on the point of a dagger. Territorial bigwigs main- 
tained this practice until the end of the nineteenth century in some cases; such PR feasts 
were called 'ordinaries*, and one, given by the Duke of Omnium, is described in Trollope's 
Dr Thome, Chapter xix. 

f Edward's brother, Richard in, was also tall and good-looking, but thinner. His 
hunchback was an invention of Tudor propaganda. Nicholas von Poppelau, who met him 



of his womanising, claiming he had 'three concubines, which in diverse 
properties diversely excelled, one the merriest, the other the wiliest, the 
third the holiest harlot in the realm 1 . Edward's smooth good looks he 
inherited from his mother, Cecily Neville; but he had brains, too, - one 
of the cunningest men who ever sat on the English throne - and every 
kind of accomplishment. His handwriting was superb. He was a beauti- 
ful and enthusiastic dancer. He understood accountancy, and his reform 
of the royal household led to a dramatic cut in expenditure. But above 
all he was a glad-hander. It was said that he knew the names, faces and 
incomes of every man of importance in his kingdom. 

By the end of the Middle Ages, indeed, the monarchy was beginning 
to lose some of its executive functions and was becoming, to some extent, 
a show put on for the benefit of the public. A king in the high Middle 
Ages had to keep friendly relations with the great territorial magnates 
to be reasonably secure; the circle of mandatory approval widened 
dramatically in the fifteenth century, and in the next it embraced a 
significant proportion of the entire nation. A king had to devote himself 
to certain aspects of government business, and spend laborious days in 
the details of administration; his real power depended to a great extent 
on the actual amount of time he was prepared to spend exercising it ; this 
principle held good until the days of George HI, the last sovereign who 
attempted to be a professional; it was George's eventual incapacity 
through madness, and the idleness of his sons, which led to the final 
collapse of monarchical authority. But the ability to concentrate on 
administration had increasingly to be supplemented by showmanship. 
It is significant that Henry vn, a true (though incomplete) professional, 
who was far abler and more industrious than his son, was never so 
secure on the throne, and could not risk putting his authority to the 
test, because he lacked regal glamour. Henry vm was idle, irresponsible, 
ignorant, lacking in judgment and totally oblivious to any sense of duty 
to the community. But he knew how to beat the big drum of monarchy, 
and the nation trouped in his wake. Through all the vicissitudes and 
miscalculated adventures into which he led the realm - disastrous 
foreign wars, state bankruptcy, the debauching of the currency, change 
of religion, government by confiscation and judicial murder - the great 
mass of the people obediently followed. The English have always 

in 1484, said he had very delicate arms and legs. The Countess of Desmond, who lived to 
be over 100, told Walter Ralegh that she had often danced with Richard, and that he 
was the handsomest man at court, apart from his brother Edward. There is no conclusive 
evidence that Richard killed the Princes in the Tower; he probably believed, as did 
many others, that Edward's marriage had been irregular, and that they were bastards. 
But he would not have scrupled to murder them. Between Henry vi and Elizabeth, all 
the reigning sovereigns of England were killers. 



responded to strong central government, invested with majesty and 
colour, and operated by a self-confident will. Henry's last speech to 
Parliament was an astonishing performance. His government had noth- 
ing to report but failure, but the King subjected the assembly to a 
magisterial harangue, in which all sections of the community were in 
turn soundly rebuked for their shortcomings. He contrived to give the 
impression that the nation was entirely to blame for any evils which had 
befallen it, and that it was exceedingly fortunate he was still prepared 
to remain at the helm and protect it from the worst consequences of its 
folly. The speech was heard in breathless admiration, and was never 
forgotten by all those present. Many of them, we are told, actually wept 
tears of love, penitence and gratitude. 

This gift of royal showmanship Henry passed on, in all its plenitude, 
to his dazzling daughter Elizabeth. To be sure, she supplemented it 
with an enviable range of qualities and accomplishments: a subtle 
intelligence, industry and self-discipline, prudence and deliberation, 
a warm heart and a virtuous mind. But without it she could not have 
kept her throne, let alone given a divided, weak and desperately 
vulnerable nation the strength which comes from unity and a com- 
mon purpose. No woman had ever presided successfully over a medieval 
court, whose function was to associate the chief landed proprietors 
with the business of government, and determine a fair division of its 
spoils. Their animal energies found natural expression in violence, 
whether civil or international; such energies could only be diverted into 
more useful channels by the cynosure of the throne, whose authority 
sprang from its tenant's ability to epitomise and transcend the ruffianly 
virtues of a military aristocracy. A woman's sex was thus a daunting 
handicap. Elizabeth's political genius consisted in turning it into an 
asset. She did not attempt to disguise her sex; on the contrary she 
emphasised it. In her great speeches, she always reminded her hearers 
that she was a woman. But she was a woman sui generis. They could turn 
her out in her petticoats, she said, and she would make a living anywhere 
in Europe. She had a woman's body but 'the heart and stomach of a 
king'. She was careful not to say 'of a man'. She was not an emancipa- 
tionist ; she did not believe in woman's liberation. She did not seek to 
play a masculine role, and so injure the men she had to control in their 
pride. The English had burnt Joan of Arc for precisely that mistake. 
Elizabeth vaunted her sex. Her weapons were an astonishing wardrobe, 
a collection of jewels which even the popes envied, false hair, paint and 
powder, and the universal knowledge that behind these trappings lay a 
resolute and imperious spirit which it was perilous to challenge. Eliza- 
beth did not need men, unlike her wretched half-sister Mary, and her 



still more unhappy cousin Mary of Scotland. She was chaste by choice, 
and virtuous by policy and inclination. The mystique of her court - the 
cult of the Faerie Queen, the sexual favourites, the pretend love-affairs, 
the political minuets she danced with the popinjays who surrounded her 
- was an elaborate and calculated exercise in royal diplomacy, designed 
to replace the licensed gangsterism of masculine chivalry by a non- 
violent system which a woman could manipulate. It seems to us in 
retrospect shameful that this noble and virtuous queen, whose intelli- 
gence soared above her courtiers', and whose ability and sense of res- 
ponsibility rivalled that of even her most devoted and accomplished 
advisers, should have felt it necessary to demean herself to this mas- 
querade. But there was no other way. 

Behind this public-relations fagade, Elizabeth did her best to super- 
vise the actual operations of government. But she was obliged to be 
selective. Thanks to her knowledge of languages (English did not become 
an accepted vehicle for diplomacy until the late eighteenth century) she 
was able to negotiate with ambassadors, and correspond with their 
masters, directly; she thus kept foreign policy firmly under her control, 
and all the decisions were ultimately hers. Dynastic and religious policy, 
too, she settled herself, though with great difficulty. But in finance her 
touch was less authoritative, because although she decided how and 
when funds could be allocated, her supervision effectively ceased once 
the Exchequer issued the money - as she was painfully aware, for it was 
at this point that the corruption and incompetence began.* Nor (beyond 
a little genteel piracy) could she carry through the revenue-raising 
operations by which Edward iv and Henry vn restored the solvency of 
the State. Elizabeth inherited a bankrupt government during a period of 
raging inflation, and maintained the credit of the State only by the 
desperate expedient of selling the royal estates, and creating monopolies 
for purchase. In fact throughout her reign she covered the gap between 
revenue and expenditure by living on capital. On the other hand, she 
always finally managed to meet her obligations; England's credit was 
better than that of any other state. The truth is that Elizabeth handled 
as much business as any one person reasonably could. She was a hard- 
working, devoted public servant, rapid at her paper-work, abstemious 
in food and drink, a professional whose pleasures were essentially func- 
tional and constitutional. But the economic problems of her reign - and 

* For Elizabeth's angry, but unavailing, efforts to straighten out the finances of her 
army in the Low Countries, see Sir John Neale: 'Elizabeth and the Netherlands, 1586-7', 
English Historical Review, xlv (1930), pp. 373-96. She made a far more successful inter- 
vention, against determined and self-interested opposition from Burghley, Leicester and 
Walsingham, in the administration of the customs; see Howell A. Lloyd: 'Camden, 
Carmarden and the Customs', EHR, Ixxxv (1970), pp. 776-87. 



the frantic efforts of her Government to cope with them - were beyond 
her ability to supervise, or perhaps even comprehend. In the last resort 
the Tudor monarchy, which revived the ancient notion of the omni- 
competent sovereign, proved inoperable because the widening scope of 
government made the constitutional sharing of responsibility inevitable. 
Even Elizabeth faltered. Her last years \vere ones of rising difficulties, 
and increasing inability to face them. Like all her great predecessors, she 
died tired and dispirited, worn down by a system of government which 
placed too great a burden on a single body, and by the insatiable de- 
mands of a people which always expects too much of its ruling servants. 
The old English monarchy, the one-man, one-woman show, founded by 
Alfred, endorsed by the Conqueror, died with her. It was a cruel system, 
which murdered its failures and killed its successes by overwork. Three 
of the greatest of its practitioners, William I, Henry n and Edward in, 
had been stripped to the skin and robbed of their rings the moment they 
breathed their last. It was hard for a monarch to die in dignity; even 
Elizabeth lost her hold on the creatures she had elevated. The English 
evolved a new type of constitution, and thus made their unique con- 
tribution to the history of human society, not from any love of change 
but because their old system was beyond the physical strength of those 
called upon to operate it. 

I have made the point that the idea of government by a process of 
conflict between Monarchy and Parliament was wholly alien to the 
English mind. The Monarch was, in fact, a member of Parliament, its 
supreme member. The English did not want self-government. What they 
wanted was authoritative government, operating under the law, in a 
highly conservative manner, and in the national interest, with the King 
taking the decisions and answerable for them. In local administration 
they assumed responsibilities because there was no one else; but even 
here it was self-government by the King's command; and the 1,000 or 
so civilian knights, who took on these roles in ever-increasing measure, 
felt themselves to be overworked. No one wished the King to escape 
from his responsibilities; but it was a tall order to expect him every- 
where and always to discharge them to the general satisfaction. When, 
as frequently happened, he proved incapable of doing so, there arose the 
question of who was to help and advise him. The role of Parliament was 
not at issue. What was at issue was the composition of the King's 
council. Here was the central political problem of the Middle Ages, and 
it was one the English never solved. Beyond a vague assumption that 
the King ought to be advised by his 'natural' counsellors, the great 
magnates and prelates, there was no consensus, and even this vague 
assumption was eroded in time. The English were never prepared to 


accept any written set of rules, for which there was no precedent (only 
in our own time, and with reluctance, have they been prepared to give 
formal acknowledgment to the existence of a prime minister, and they 
have never given legal definition of his rights and duties). The security 
clause of Magna Carta, which placed 25 barons in supervision over the 
King, and gave them the right to resist him if he broke it, was the one 
important clause never to be put into operation, though to the baronial 
party it was the core of the document. In the mid-thirteenth century 
various formulae were put forward for a committee of management, laid 
down by statute. They may have derived from the precedent of the 
college of cardinals in Rome, or the imperial electors in Germany, or 
more likely from the experiment in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 
a limited monarchy conducted on the crazy theoretical principles of 
Continental feudalism. But it is significant that their most enthusiastic 
advocate was an alien, Simon de Montfort; and he finally snarled in 
disgust that 'the English always turned tail' when it came to placing 
formal restrictions on the Monarch's choice of ministers. Such ideas 
were periodically revived : during the reigns of Edward n and Richard 
ii, during the minority and dotage of Edward in, and throughout the 
reigns of Henry vi and Edward vi, all kinds of proposals were made for 
some kind of formal oligarchy to supplement the manifest incompetence 
of the Sovereign. None was generally accepted, or operated with success. 
The English managed by a series of expedients, usually born and ter- 
minated in blood, and punctuated by judicial murders. 

Oddly enough, the desire of the aristocracy to get formal protection 
from arbitrary proceedings by the King - expressed in the famous 
Clause 39 of Magna Carta - was frustrated not by the Monarchy but by 
their own clumsy efforts to usurp its authority. The life of a magnate 
who played politics was more seriously at risk in the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries than under the Norman, Angevins and early Plan- 
tagenets. William I did not believe in capital punishment, least of all for 
the aristocracy; nor, on the whole, did Henry u; and even a magnate 
caught in flagrante delicto, in open and violent rebellion against the 
Crown, usually got a full and fair trial. It was the King who sought, in 
1352, to define and limit the categories of death for treason. But as the 
practice of changing the government by force developed, judicial stan- 
dards in political cases declined. Not only did Parliament invent the 
disgraceful practice of impeachment, but the rival oligarchies pro- 
ceeded against their opponents with a ruthless disregard for the sub- 
stance, and often the forms, of law. Magnates who played the political 
game and lost were adjudged 'guilty by notoriety' and often got no 
real trial at all. The judicial massacres of public men were sufficiently 


The Insular Tradition 

Pelagius incubated in colonial Britain the doctrines 
of free-will and self-determination which challenged 
the international absolutism of Rome and its clerical 
legatee, the churc'h of St Augustine. Only in 5th and 
6th century Britain did his teachings find political 

Wyclif recreated English Pelagianism in 
the late I4th century, and adumbrated 
the Reformation. High-placed anti-cleri- 
cals in parliament, foreshadowing the 
Whigs, gave him initial support, soon 
submerged by the wave of ruling-class 
panic which followed the Peasants' 

Thomas Cromwell finally carried 
through the Reformation programme 
by employing the characteristic weap- 
ons of English insularity: anti-clerical- 
ism, xenophobia, the parliamentary 
statute, the Royal Navy. This realm, 5 
he wrote, 'is an empire.' His work 
turned i6th century England away 
from the Continent towards the oceans. 


-*~ ^.c* :~*s*5>~2>"^ ^/ r *^*M**.--;V- **,,**"''* 

Peace talks at Somerset House end the Anglo-Spanish war in 1604: the English team, 
led by Robert Cecil, on right. The gravity and high seriousness of Elizabethan gov- 
ernment survived briefly into the Stuart epoch. 

By 1624 the English war-council already had a raffish air: corruption, favouritism, 
incompetence made political revolution inevitable. 

create 'BrittamesCNobie and worthyCouncell of WAIT 

Rebellions that Failed 

Peasants' Revolt of 1381 had the Plantagenet state at their mercy, but failed because 
their aims were even more conservative than the regime in power. English popular 
movements always tried to put the clock back to a mythical Arcadia, and so exposed 
themselves to the ruthless realism of the ruling class. 

taill I mi 

Lovat executed in 1746, after the collapse of the Young Pretender's coup. No revolt 
in Britain has prospered without a popular base in the south-east. A Cockney woman 
screamed at Lord Lovat on his way to the scaffold: 'You'll get that nasty head of 
yours chopped off, you ugly old Scotch dog.' He replied: 'I believe I shall, you ugly 
old English bitch.' 

Chartists attack the Westgate Inn, Newport, in 1839. They got their programme 
from London, their mass-support from the north, midlands and Wales, a certain 
recipe for failure. Mid-Victorian prosperity did the rest. 

Rebellions that Succeeded 

Great rebellion sprang from the south-east and the vast economic resources 
of the metropolis. Charles I relied on the backward north, 'the most brute 
and beastly shires of the realm', and on 'blind Wales'. The outcome was 
predictable: he lost his head. 

Cornwallis surrenders, crowning the American revolt. The rebels were in a 
minority, but they won the propaganda battle by skilfully foisting a hysterical 
conspiracy theory on their compatriots. British troops do not relish shooting 
insurgents who have white faces and speak English. 
f >-v 

Ulster rebels Carson and F. E. Smith arrive for a demo at Blenheim Palace in 1912. 
This right-wing revolt could count on a section of the Tory hierarchy, some high- 
placed public servants, and many cavalry officers: nothing else. The Liberal govern- 
ment failed to call its bluff, and the consequences are with us still. 

The Chosen Race 

Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity to Britain straight from 
the Holy Land or so Englishmen were taught in the i6th and iyth 
centuries. The belief that Christ selected the English to replace the 
Jews as the chosen race was the emotional dynamic of the English 
Reformation and the colonisation of North America. 


risen, and is rising, faster than in any other industry, they have the 
lowest average wage-rates of any male occupational group.) Moreover 
the very structure of society was based firmly - and until the nineteenth 
century, it seemed, irrevocably - on the land. The native inhabitants of 
Roman Britain firmly declined to adopt the city-civilisation Rome 
proffered them; even the wealthiest, while accepting the towns as 
administrative centres and economic instruments, made their homes in 
the midst of their estates. The Old English were an incorrigibly rural 
people, who saw with indifference the Roman cities crumble into ruins, 
and whose own towns were built as markets and fortresses. The Normans 
and their successor-rulers encouraged urban growth as a source of 
revenue, not of culture, and their few experiments in deliberate town 
planning (such as Winchelsea) were conspicuous failures. 

It was the land that mattered: its ownership was universally regarded 
as the ultimate source of satisfaction, the criterion of worldly success, and 
the only sure index of status. The English respect hierarchies, but only 
those based on real estate. The Old English wergUds, a system of classi- 
fication which governed not only social status but legal and political 
rights, and military and financial obligations, were strictly related to 
landed property, with the exception of clergy and substantial merchants. 
The wergild system fell into disuse as the development of the common 
law abolished monetary compensation for criminal offences ; but it was, 
pari passu, replaced by a social hierarchy based, not on a hereditary 
caste system, but on the actual, current occupation of land. 

The English, indeed, are acutely but also realistically - perhaps even 
cynically - conscious of status. A man, whatever his origins, who did not 
have the land was nobody ; a man, whatever his origins, who did have the 
land, could take his place in the hierarchy, with all its public rights and 
duties, to which his possessions entitled him. From the fourteenth cen- 
tury onwards, efforts were made by statute to oblige men of a certain 
estate to take up the distinctions and burdens of knighthood. From the 
mid-fifteenth century, the right to elect knights of the shire to 
Parliament was limited by statute to freemen holding real estate to a 
minimum value of 405 annually, and with some exceptions this remained 
the basis of the suffrage until 1832. The test of nobility, or peerage, 
became restricted to those who received an individual writ of summons 
to Parliament. Hence a man was noble not by right of birth but by 
ownership of land. Even an eldest son of a peer was a commoner until 
he succeeded his father; younger sons remained commoners all their 
lives, and drifted down the social hierarchy, unless they acquired land 
by marriage or industry. The formal status of peers even of the highest 
rank was in peril if their estates dwindled. The ruthless landed snobbery 



of the English was often enforced with outspoken brutality. It is worth 
quoting the statute passed in 1478 depriving George, Duke of Bedford, 
of his titles, on the grounds that his estates were insufficient : 

. . . for as much as it is openly known that the same George has not, nor by 
inheritance may have, any livelihood to support the said name, estate and 
dignity, or any name or estate, and often it is seen that when any lord is called 
to high estate, and has not livelihood conveniently to support the same 
dignity, it induces great poverty and indigence, and often causes great 
extortion, embracery and maintainence, to the great trouble of all such 
countries where such estates shall happen to dwell. . . . Wherefore the King, 
by the advice of his lords spiritual and temporal and the commons assembled 
in this present parliament, and by authority of the same, ordained . . . that 
from henceforth the same . . . naming of a duke and all the names of dignity 
given to the said George, or to the said John Neville his father, be from hence- 
forth void and of no effect. And that the same George and his heirs from hence- 
forth be no dukes, nor marquesses, earls or barons. 

Until the end of the nineteenth century, insufficiency of estate was con- 
sidered absolute, or at least adequate, grounds for refusing a peerage to 
a man otherwise entitled to it by virtue of public services. A successful 
general, admiral or politician usually had to demonstrate that he had a 
sizeable property and the income to support it before his claims were 
acknowledged. Even in 1918, when Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was 
negotiating, through Sir Philip Sassoon, with Lloyd George for suitable 
recognition of his wartime services, such as they were, the point was 
made that if he accepted an earldom Parliament must vote him 250,000 
to justify the title ; eventually Haig settled for 100,000. 

Land carried with it direct political power, and still more political 
influence; it was universally acknowledged that it must be linked to 
status. Those who owned land must be brought into a loyal relationship 
with the Crown. Conversely, those whose loyalties were suspect must not 
own it. From the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a 
general feeling that foreigners whose allegiance lay elsewhere should be 
debarred from ownership of English land. This eventually found statu- 
tory expression, and remained the law of the land until 1870. As late as 
1864, justifying his opposition to the repeal of the statutes, Lord Pal- 
merston wrote to the Lord Chancellor : 

I do not think we ought to alter the long established law of our land to suit 
the private purposes of a Foreigner however respectable or entitled to con- 
sideration. . . . According to our social habits and political organisation the 
possession of Land in this Country is directly or indirectly the source of poli- 
tical Influence and Power and that Influence and Power ought to be exercised 



exclusively by British subjects and not to pass in any degree into the Hands 
of Foreigners. It may be said that the possession of landed Property by a few 
Foreigners would produce no sensible effect on the working of our co'nstitu- 
tion, but this is a question of Principle and not of Degree and you might on 
the same ground propose a law to allow Foreigners to vote at elections, as 
well as to allow them to purchase the means of swaying the votes of other 
Persons at elections. 

Within the harshly realistic English system which related status and 
power to land it follows, as a corollary, that there was infinite room for 
mobility. The English class system has always been severe but never 
exclusive. If even dukes could drift down the hierarchy, assisted in their 
declension by a tremendous statutory boot from Parliament, the newly 
rich could always scramble up.* There were always plenty of vacancies. 
The turnover at the top was very rapid. Very few great landed families 
held together for more than a century or so. The chief cause of their 
eclipse was not death in battle or on the scaffold but the failure to beget 
male heirs. In the fourteenth century 13 earls died without any legiti- 
mate children at all, and four left only girls. This led to a sharp contrac- 
tion in the numbers of the great proprietors, but a corresponding 
increase in the size of their estates by inheritance. The fundamental 
cause of the Wars of the Roses was the narrowing of the gap between the 
Crown itself, whose revenues were falling, and those of the few great 
proprietors, which were rising - the King became a mere primus inter 
pares of half a dozen heads of families, who alone or in combination could 
replace him almost at wHl.f But the wars and their aftermath virtually 
wiped out these super-aristocrats, and the nobility of the late sixteenth 
century was, for all practical purposes, a new creation. 

The English aristocracy, greedy and realistic, never showed much 
compunction in allying itself with its social inferiors, if the price was 
right. In the fourteenth century, one-third of the daughters of London 
aldermen married into the nobility ; in the next century this propor- 
tion rose to over 50 per cent. All the professions, law, warfare, public 

* The English are a pushful people. In Anthony Trollope's remarkable study in social 
ambition, Is He Popenjoy ?, the hero, the Dean of Brotherton, gives a classic statement of 
English social philosophy : 'It is a grand thing to rise in the world. The ambition to do so 
is the very salt of the earth. It is the parent of all enterprise, and the cause of all improve- 
ment. They who know no such ambition are savages and remain savage. As far as I can 
see, among us Englishmen such ambition is, healthily and happily, almost universal, and 
on that account we stand high among the citizens of the world.' The Dean's father had 
kept stables ; his grandson becomes a Marquess. 

f Richard n's regular income had been about 120,000; Henry vi's fell from 75,000 in 
1422-32 to 54,000 in 1442-52. The Lancastrian monarchy has been described as 'a 
pauper government ruling with the consent of its wealthier subjects' (A. Steel: The 
Receipt of the Exchequer ', 1377-1485, Cambridge, 1954). 



service, the Church, offered to the man of meanest origins a speedy entry 
into the upper echelons provided he acquired enough money to purchase 
land. Of the richest and most magisterial medieval prelates, one, Wyke- 
ham of Winchester, had a peasant father, another, Wolsey of York, was 
the son of a butcher. Such men could acquire wealth and status very 
rapidly indeed - often in a mere decade - but they were not resented 
provided they conformed equally quickly to the manners and prejudices 
of the men they joined. All kings created new grandees from lowly 
origins, through the Church or the civil service, but it is significant that 
the tw r o kings who were most successful in managing the aristocracy, 
Edward I and Edward in, were careful to select for promotion men who 
were circumspect in their social behaviour, and who showed an early 
aptitude for assuming their traditional responsibilities as landed pro- 
prietors. Ne\v men who behaved arrogantly risked judicial murder or (in 
the case of one imprudent bishop) being torn apart by a London mob. 
The children of such upstarts invariably conformed, and their parents' 
birth was rarely held against them, for there \vere few whose family 
origins would bear prolonged investigation. When an angry London 
mob screamed at John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, that he was the son 
of a Flemish butcher (his mother was widely believed to have been an 
adultress), they \vere motivated not so much by snobbery as by xeno- 

The English landed class was thus (and has remained) flexible, 
because all suitable persons were admitted; rich, because its financial 
standards of admission were high; and tiny, because its unsuccessful 
members were expelled. The income tax returns for 1436 reveal 51 
magnates with an annual average income of 865; 183 greater knights, 
averaging 200; 750 lesser knights, averaging 60; 1,200 esquires 
averaging 20-35; 1,600 property-owners averaging 10-19 an d 3 A 00 
with 5-10. (Some of the men with the largest incomes, who also super- 
vised the returns, deliberately underestimated their incomes, in some 
cases by as much as 50 per cent ; thus the Duke of York's real income was 
at least 7,000, not 3,231, as stated, and the Earl of Warwick's was at 
least 6,000, not 3,116; ever since the eighth century, the English 
aristocracy had been engaged in various forms of tax-evasion on a mas- 
sive scale, and of course still does so, though it is nowadays called tax- 
avoidance.) Thus less than 7,000 people owned virtually all the property 
in the country, and controlled a nation of three million. 

It may be asked: how was this astonishing social and economic 
imbalance preserved? What prevented the great mass of the property- 
less English from rising and sweeping away this minute ruling class? 
Certainly there were no physical barriers to stop them. There was no 



standing army. Even Richard 11*5 amateurish efforts to recruit a per- 
manent force of Cheshire archers was violently resented by the aris- 
tocracy, and held as one among many good reasons why he should be 
deposed (and murdered). There was no professional police force. The 
ruling class was armed, and to some extent trained to warfare, but then 
so was virtually everyone else. It is true that in theory men of villein 
status were not permitted to bear arms ; but they in fact did so ; more- 
over villeinage was in rapid decline in the fourteenth century, and soon 
after became obsolete. And in many parts of England, particularly in 
the east and north, the great majority of the peasants had always been 
free. In any case, the supposed defence needs of the realm led the 
Government positively to encourage large numbers of peasants to become 
proficient in the use of arms, especially of the long-bow. This formidable 
and characteristically English weapon required a great deal of training 
to master; but in the hands of the skilled man, it was lethal up to 600 
yards and at a distance of up to 100 yards could penetrate chain mail. 
Most able-bodied Englishmen knew how to handle it. The villages often 
trained together, as an operational unit ; from Oxfordshire in 1355 we 
have an echo of their brutal war-cry, the signal for general pillage: 
'Havok, havok, smygt faste, gyf good knok!' No medieval English 
Government could possibly have withstood a peasant uprising which 
aspired to take over the State. 

Yet this motivation was lacking. It was never difficult, in those times, 
to assemble a crowd, often of thousands, sometimes of tens of thou- 
sands. There was huge misery everywhere; a large proportion of the 
population suffered from chronic ailments, beyond the skill of doctors, 
even if they had been available to the poor; many were incurable 
cripples; the merest rumour of some miraculous cure, of a travelling 
miracle- worker, was sufficient to set up a stampede which the authorities 
were powerless to control. These hysterical crowd-movements were a 
recurrent feature of the Middle Ages, more common on the Continent 
than in England, but nevertheless to be found here; the chroniclers 
superstitiously paid them as little attention as possible ; there was, as it 
were, a conspiracy of silence about the fearful potential of the mob. 
There is no doubt that agitators could have diverted this uncontrollable 
energy into directly political channels. But in England the elements of 
political conspiracy were lacking. There may have been good reasons for 
this. Slavery itself had been killed by the Normans. Villeinage was never 
as oppressive, or as widespread, here as across the Channel. It was 
already in decline in the twelfth century, and the slow declension was 
never, as on the Continent, successfully reversed, or even arrested. 
Moreover, many of the villeins themselves were men of substantial 



property, with a stake in the existing order ; there are cases where we 
know they declined a change of status, for sound economic reasons. 
There is evidence of a very widespread distribution of property, if onlv 
on a small scale, in the countryside. Many local riots took place; but 
they were the medieval equivalent of a strike, organised and carried 
through to achieve specific, limited objectives, not to overthrow society. 
The aim of most of them was to put the clock back. None sought to 
impose an alternative government. The English medieval peasant was 
deeply conservative, as were, many centuries later, his industrial 
progeny. In 1926 the General Strike was wholly successful, in that it 
brought transport and industry to a standstill; but, having achieved 
this, the workers could go no further, as they lacked the desire - though 
they had the opportunity - to take over the State ; so they went back to 
work. It was the same with medieval uprisings; the furthest their poli- 
tical aspirations could reach was to present petitions to the authorities 
for the redressing of their wrongs, in the belief that the King, if informed 
of their grievances, would not hesitate to restore the ancient law. They 
were usually deceived ; but their faith in the virtue of a divinely inspired 
kingship never faltered. Even in the time of Henry vm, a sovereign who 
had introduced dramatic changes in the religious structure of the coun- 
try - changes which the northern peasants bitterly resented and which, 
indeed, were a chief motivation of revolt - the Pilgrims of Grace put 
implicit trust in the King's word that they would get redress, dispersed 
quietly, and were then massacred in detail. The truth is, rebellious 
peasants were not violent revolutionaries, but violent reactionaries. 

The attitude of the English masses can be seen in its most striking 
form during the fourteenth century, a period of fundamental economic 
change. The agricultural system of early medieval England had been 
based on 'high farming' ; that is, large estates farmed directly by their 
great secular and ecclesiastical owners, and based to a considerable 
extent on labour services. Some of these estates were big business, by 
any reckoning. In 1322 the cathedral church of Canterbury farmed 
8,373 acres of arable and owned 13,730 sheep ; the Priory of St Swithin's 
had 20,000 sheep. The standard of living of all had been rising steadily 
for two centuries, as more land was brought into cultivation ; population 
had increased steadily too. By the early fourteenth century, only mar- 
ginal land remained; it may be that the population had reached satura- 
tion point, at any rate in terms of the existing methods of exploitation. 
The large estates were often grossly inefficient. Compulsory work- 
service was no more effective in England than compulsory knight- 
service. High farming required large injections of capital to work at all, 
especially when harvests were bad. After the expulsion of the Jews, it 



\vas difficult for big landowners to get bridging finance, even at crushing 
rates of interest ; and increasing taxation often pushed them deeply into 
debt, and so destroyed what credit they had. In 1315-17 there were 
three appallingly bad harvests, caused by torrential rains and floods. It 
brought the last general famine in English history.* But if thousands of 
peasants died of starvation, the great landlords were badly hit too. 
Indeed high farming in England never really recovered from this catas- 
trophe. Many of them began to lease out major portions of their estates 
for fixed rents. With the decline of the old manorial system, the labour 
market for agricultural workers, paid by the day, grew rapidly. Large- 
scale farming for the market ceased to be attractive ; marginal land fell 
out of cultivation. The fall of money incomes from farming was one 
reason why the English ruling class was so attracted to the French wars, 
which offered the only other occupation they knew which would bring 
cash profits. The peasants were keen to get land, because they were less 
affected by agricultural recession; the estates were keener to sell or 
lease it, because they had to raise money for war taxation. Moreover, the 
effects of Quo Warranto proceedings were diminishing the social value of 
large estates. 

Into this already critical situation, the Black Death introduced a new 
and revolutionary element. This mixture of diseases, in which pneu- 
monic and bubonic plague were predominant, arrived in August 1348 
and lasted until the end of 1349; a second wave struck in 1361-2, 
attacking mainly children, and a third in 1369. The second attack was 
perhaps the most important from the economic point of view, affecting 
the labour market in the 13705. The cumulative impact on the popula- 
tion was dramatic. Over the country as a whole it fell by about one- 
third ; in many areas by a half or more. There was an immediate and 
rapid increase in wage-rates, which rose 30 per cent in the decade 1340- 
50, 60 per cent in the next decade, and continued to rise. There was also 
a steady upwards movement in what we would call 'wage-drift', with 
employers forced to concede a range of amenities to get any labour at 
all. Boon-labourers at harvest expected a midday meal of bread, ale and 
pottage, plus either beef, pork and mutton, or a fish dish and five her- 
rings. For the first time in English history, the ordinary man had the 
possessing class at his economic mercy, f 

* C. Britton: A Meteorological Chronology to AD 1450 (London, 1937). P- *33- But see 
also Barbara Harvey: 'Population Trends in England, 1300-1348', Transactions of tk 
Royal Historical Society ', 1966. 

t Landlords made desperate efforts to counter the manpower shortage by labour- 
saving devices; use of the scythe, instead of the sickle, and of the butter-churn became 
common at this time. See B.H.Slicher van Bath: The Agrarian History of Western Europe 
(London, 1961). 



The rich and the well-to-do sought desperately to reverse the trend 
by legislation. Ordinances put out in 1349, revised and enacted as 
statutes in 1351, were the first of many measures designed to hold 
wage-rates and force men to work for them. They were accompanied 
by sumptuary legislation which sought to underpin the crumbling class- 
structure by denying the masses the right to exercise their new purchas- 
ing-power. These acts recall the despairing economic legislation of the 
late Roman Empire. They were almost wholly ineffective because they 
could not be generally enforced ; and the spasmodic attempts to enforce 
them provoked anger. The clock could only have been put back by bring- 
ing about an actual and massive cut in the standard of living, the first 
for centuries. This was beyond the power of any medieval government, 
or indeed of any modern one; it was something only war or natural 
disaster could achieve. A statutory freeze of wages was unacceptable to 
the peasants, who preferred to withdraw their labour; it was unaccept- 
able, in the end, to the landlords, who preferred to evade it and pay high 
wages simply in order to stay in business. Rents fell and land declined 
in value. Villeins ran away in large numbers because the economic 
opportunities now open to them greatly outweighed the small risk of 
capture. Parliament tried to enforce work-services, but the thing was 
impossible without an expensive apparatus of repression, which did not 
exist. Where action was taken it was too weak to secure compliance, but 
irritating enough to provoke violence. Moreover, the King's courts were 
available to free peasants; even lowly elements of society could, and 
did, seek legal protection. The peasants were capable of pleading the 
Great Charter in their support, even if it did not strictly apply. They 
were litigious, and if the law failed them could be relied on to resort to 
arms to resist what they saw as a novel and revolutionary invasion of 
their ancient rights. There were numerous uprisings, most of which were 
successful in attaining their short-term object of frustrating Parliament's 
attempt to control the economy. 

By the 13703 the Government, reeling from military disaster and 
divided by rival factions, had virtually abandoned the hopeless attempt 
to freeze wages ; instead they sought to tap the new wealth of the masses 
by resorting to poll-taxes, that is by a direct, fixed levy on every adult, 
irrespective of income. This monstrous device, of Continental origin, was 
the perfect formula to provoke civil commotion. Attempts to take a 
preliminary census, in 1377, led to riots in the big cities, such as London, 
and resistance almost everywhere. In 1381, the actual imposition of a 
shilling poll-tax was the signal for revolution, particularly in the heavily 
populated areas of the south-east. A peasant had to pay 2s for himself 
and his wife in ready cash ; in many cases he did not possess it. His lord 

I 4 2 


might pay it for him, advancing the money against future labour. But 
in many villages there was no longer a lord - he had contracted out - and 
the peasant, for the first time, came up against the revenue officers 
directly. He could not pay, and so he took to arms. 

Yet the Peasants' Revolt was essentially an exercise in English con- 
servatism, or rather in two kinds of English conservatism. The represen- 
tatives of the propertied classes wanted to put the clock back to the 
early years of the century, before the peasants acquired their present 
economic bargaining-power. The peasants also wanted to put the clock 
back, but to an even more distant, and largely imaginary, period. It was 
thus a conflict between two reactionary forces, operating under different 
time-scales. The authorities saw the peasants as revolutionaries, in that 
they offered violence against due forms of law. The peasants saw the 
authorities as revolutionaries, in that they used the instrument of the 
statute to demolish ancient customs. They turned first against the 
Church, for clerical landlords were the most unscrupulous and tenacious 
in their employment of new legal devices; and anti-clericalism had been 
a burgeoning English tradition for over two centuries - the earliest 
organised peasant riots, of which we have records, in the 1230$, had 
anti-clerical objectives. There were assaults on monasteries and even on 
Cambridge University. But the rioters, if anti-clerical, were not anti- 
Christian; on the contrary, they sought a return to a primitive Chris- 
tianity. Lawyers were also objects of attack, as the agents of new and 
vicious forces. In many cases recent legal records were seized and 
burnt ; lawyers were captured and beheaded in the name of the King. 
But the ancient law itself was not challenged; on the contrary, it was 
exalted, and quoted in support. The men of Kent said they would pay 
no new taxes ; no taxes at all, 'save the isths which their fathers and 
forebears knew and accepted*. One of Wat Tyler's demands was that 
there should be no new law - only 'the law of Winchester 1 , a reference to 
the legislation, real or imagined, of Edward I, already a century old. 
The peasants demanded an end to attempts to restore villeinage, a 
return to the ancient free market in land, and the right to rent land at 
the old price of 4d an acre. 

This programme was, in effect, a revolutionary one. But it was pre- 
sented in the customary English manner; that is, the sanctification of 
change by dressing it up in the guise of a return to an earlier order. The 
rebels delved deep into their capacious folk-memories, and came up with 
some surprising symbolism - though they were thinking in real terms, 
not symbols. The Kentish rioters called themselves 'men of Kent and 
Jutes'. In East Anglia, there were demands for 'county kings', of the 
Northfolk and the Southfolk, each of whom would issue 'county 



charters', modelled on Magna Carta. There were evidently, among these 
people, living memories of pre-Norman times: not even of the great 
unitary Wessex state but of the kingdoms of the heptarchy which had 
preceded it. Indeed, Norfolk and Suffolk had already been merged in the 
Kingdom of East Anglia by the mid-seventh century, at the time when 
the great Sutton Hoo treasure was buried. The rioters of 1381 were thus 
going back over 800 years, to a form of territorial tribalism. 

The riots were put down without much difficulty. Some of the leaders 
were murdered or hanged, but there was no general repression. The 
State was in no position to carry one out ; and the English have always 
quailed before the prospect of class war. The rioters got their way on all 
essential points. On the Continent similar - and much more bloody - 
uprisings led to a genuine reaction, in which the villeinage system was 
brutally reimposed, and was to endure in some respects until the French 
Revolution and beyond. But in England the agricultural revolution, of 
which the Peasants' Revolt was an illogical by-product, went on almost 
unhindered, to the great benefit of the community. By the end of the 
century high farming was dead, and the new pattern of freeholders, 
tenant farmers and landless labourers, which was to last until the end 
of the eighteenth century, was firmly established. 

But the revolt undoubtedly struck terror into the English ruling class. 
Its one real consequence was to turn that class decisively against the 
new religious movement associated with Wyclif. There was here un- 
doubtedly a confusion in ideas, for Wyclif was in some respects a conser- 
vative, upholding the ancient rights of the State against the clerical 
encroachments of Rome; he had the support of what would later be 
called the Whig element in society, such as the Duke of Lancaster, John 
of Gaunt, and the Black Prince's widow. But he also, through his use of 
the vernacular, had a great and growing popular appeal ; he challenged 
the established order in the Church, and a wide range of religious 
assumptions. His views were shared by many poor clergymen, in revolt 
against their ecclesiastical superiors. It was not easy to make a distinc- 
tion between those religious reformers and a priest like John Ball, who 
had been released from the Archbishop of Canterbury's prison to take a 
leading part in the peasants' uprising. At any rate, the authorities were 
in no mood for such hair-splitting. All innovation, reform, change - call 
it what you will - was dangerous. Hence in the 13805 there was a series 
of moves to suppress Lollardy. The prelates recovered their nerve ; the 
State moved to assist them, for the first time hunting out and burning 
heretics on a considerable scale; the kings, Lancastrian, Yorkist, even 
Tudor, took on a new role as the custodians of religious orthodoxy. 
Fear of economic and political subversion sent the ruling class back to 



the old, discredited altars. The one clear result of the Peasants' Revolt 
was to delay the Reformation in England by 150 years. 

The English eventually approached the business of changing their 
religion, if that is a correct description of what happened in the middle 
decades of the sixteenth century, in a characteristically haphazard and 
confused manner, and were later to congratulate themselves on the 
constitutional propriety with which it was done, and the admirable 
compromise which they eventually evolved. Yet the breach with 
Rome, and indeed the three centuries of growing hostility to the papacy 
which preceded it, had comparatively little to do with religion as such ; 
its principal dynamic was anti-clericalism, which was itself a form of 
English xenophobia. The papal aggression of the twelfth century had 
ended the old easy relationship between Church and State which had 
been such a striking and constructive feature of Anglo-Saxon society. 
The Becket affair made it clear that henceforth the two powers, one 
national, the other international, would be in a permanent state of 
tension and often of conflict, with public opinion inevitably moving in 
support of the national position. 

The thirteenth century, it is true, saw the universalist claims of the 
papacy come near to triumph. The English King became a vassal of the 
Pope. For the first time the Pope had a major voice in senior clerical 
appointments. Even a dominant personality like Edward i could not get 
his own man made Archbishop of Canterbury. A large number of eccles- 
iastical benefices were made subject to the system of papal provisions, 
under which nominees of the Pope, most of whom were Italians, enjoyed 
the revenues of English bishoprics, canonries and rectories, without in 
most cases ever setting foot in the country. 

Yet the power of the Pope was more theoretical than real. Successive 
kings found their relationship with the Pope convenient, chiefly because 
it enabled the State, in the name of the Pope, to impose heavy taxes on 
the clergy. Throughout the later Middle Ages, vast sums were raised 
in this manner; the Pope on average got about 10 per cent of the pro- 
ceeds, if he was lucky, the State took the rest. If papal action at any 
point constituted a real challenge to the Crown, the King could immedia- 
tely turn to Parliament for assistance ; and Parliament always faithfully 
reflected the growing anti-clericalism of the English people. In 1286, 
Edward i passed the first anti-clerical statute, Circumspecte Agatis, which 
began the erosion of the powers of the Church courts. Thereafter the 
position of the papacy in relation to the English State was in steady, 
and irresistible, decline. Already, in 1318, Pope John xxn wrote sadly 



that 'the status and, what is more, the liberty of the ecclesiastical dignity 
is more depressed and trampled on in [England] than in all other parts 
of the world'. 

This is scarcely surprising, in view of the claims of clergymen to a 
separate caste status, their enjoyment of between a quarter and a fifth 
of the wealth of the country, and their lack of a recognisable role in 
society: they were parasites and were seen to be parasites, and public 
opinion at all levels of society could be easily marshalled - indeed 
would marshal itself - against them. As Boniface vm's bull, Clericos 
Laicos, admitted in its opening words, laymen are notoriously hostile 
to clerks'. The trouble with the clergy was that there were too many of 
them, and most of them were in the wrong places. In the late thirteenth 
century about 50,000 clergy were serving an English population of three 
million. Nearly half of them were in some 780 religious houses, fulfilling 
no obvious social need. There were about 9,000 parishes, but their 
distribution was grossly uneven. Far too many of them were concen- 
trated in the towns - over 100 in London alone. There was an enormous 
bias in favour of the south-east. Clergymen did not want to serve in the 
wilder and poorer districts of the north and west. This certainly helps to 
explain the difference in the regional attitudes towards the Church. In 
the south-east anti-clericalism was sharper and more general, for men 
had ocular evidence of a swarming, idle and grasping clergy; in the north 
and west there was never the same animus against Rome because the 
clergy were less visible, and indeed in many cases were obliged by sheer 
lack of numbers to work extremely hard. 

What the Church lacked above all was any general sense of pastoral 
zeal. The best minds in the Church, from the Pope down, concentrated 
on the maintenance and extension of privilege and jurisdiction, to the 
exclusion of its real spiritual purpose ; the medieval Church was ruined 
by legalism. Men like Bishop Grosseteste, the pious and active apostle of 
Lincoln in the thirteenth century, were rare birds. He rightly said that 
clergy should not take secular offices, but should devote themselves to 
ministering to their flocks, and raising moral standards. But his warn- 
ings were ignored; the Crown found it cheaper to employ clerical 
servants because they could be paid in benefices, instead of from the 
Exchequer. It is true they were more difficult to punish if they proved 
corrupt ; but on the whole it was judged the lesser of two evils. As a 
result the overwhelming majority of bishops were appointed from 
secular motives. Many of them never engaged in pastoral work, or even 
visited their sees. The popes could not insist on active pastoralism, for 
they were themselves the main beneficiaries of the absentee and pluralist 
system. With no pressure from the Pope, and little supervision from 



bishops, with absenteeism at all levels, especially in the richest (and key) 
posts, the ordinary clergy were naturally lax. Most of them had wiveV, 
or mistresses, and raised families. Few knew their duties. Many were 
illiterate, and not just at the lowest levels: the Black Prince, for in- 
stance, succeeded in getting an illiterate friend made Bishop of Lincoln. 
The Church did not know what was going on in the parishes; it did not 
even know how many there were. In 1371 it was thought there were 
40,000 parishes in England; investigation (for tax, not spiritual, pur- 
poses) showed there were, in fact, less than 9,000. The truth is that the 
clergy, like, for instance, qualified doctors in underdeveloped countries 
today, were distributed according to the availability of pickings, and 
not according to actual need. 

Moreover half of them, the regulars, had no obvious public function 
at all. In the Dark Ages the monasteries had served an important 
economic and social purpose, as well as a cultural one : they forced the 
pace of technological change in agriculture. Even up to the beginning of 
the fourteenth century the monks were very active, and usually efficient, 
farmers. But the collapse of high farming, and the spread of leasehold, 
turned the monks into a rentier class, without any role in society other 
than as conspicuous consumers, living on the labour of others. In the 
second half of the fourteenth century we get the first demands, in 
Parliament and outside - and often from hard-working parish clergymen 
- for the general confiscation of clerical estates, especially of the regular 
clergy. In 1385 some of the Commons wanted all the temporalities of the 
Church to be seized, and they were echoed by Langland in Piers Plough- 
man : 'Taketh here londes, ye lords, and let hem lyve by dymes. ' 

The senior Church authorities played into the hands of the confis- 
cators. Some of the priories were offshoots of foreign mother-houses, and 
their profits went abroad. There was no protest from the English 
hierarchy when in 1295 Edward i, inspired by the xenophobia arising 
from the war with France, made the first seizures of alien priories. He 
was followed in 1324 by his son, and in 1337-60 and again in 1369 by his 
grandson. These foreign religious properties were wiped out and engulfed 
by the State. The Commons petitioned for the monks to be expelled, 
on the grounds that they were spies. A few bought charters of denization, 
and survived. The English Church got a share of the spoils, and the 
Pope got his cut too. In any case, the papacy was not in a position to 
protest : the crushing of the Templars had set a dreadful precedent, as 
Langland shrewdly noted : 

For coveityse of that crosse men of holy kirke 

Shul tourne as Templeres did * the tyme approacheth faste. 



The means employed against the Templars - confessions of moral 
turpitude, extracted under torture, to justify the seizures - were them- 
selves consciously echoed by Parliament when, in 1536, it appropriated 
the lesser monasteries : 

For as much as manifest sin, vicious, carnal, and abominable living, is 
daily used and committed among the little and small abbeys, . . . whereby 
the governors of such religious houses spoil, destroy, consume and utterly 
waste ... to the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, 
and to the great infamy of the King's Highness and the realm . . . 

The Church, indeed, was in part the architect of its own destruction. 
Powerful prelates had never hesitated to misuse Church property, and 
even to grab it, with the barest sho\v of legality, for their own purposes. 
Cardinal Wolsey was merely the last of a long line of ecclesiastical con- 
fiscators when he suppressed a group of small religious houses to found 
his Cardinal College (now Christ Church) at Oxford.* There was nothing 
new about the dissolution of the monasteries : it was the culmination of a 
long English tradition, inaugurated with the approval of the Pope. The 
Church was self-devouring, and riven by bitter animosities. An arch- 
bishop of Canterbury called the Cistercians 'the worst possible neigh- 
bours' because of their greed and love of litigation. The Black Monks 
hated the Austin canons, and both hated and feared the Franciscans. 
There was constant litigation between regular and secular clergy, 
between diocesans, who engaged in mutual excommunications, and 
between bishops and chapters. A case concerning the tithes of the Priory 
of Lenton, begun under King John, was still being conducted in an 
animated manner at the Dissolution, over 300 years later. Another, 
involving the rights of the Dean and Chapter of Durham to administer 
the spiritualities of the see during an episcopal interregnum, first came 
before the courts in 1283, survived the Reformation, and was last argued 
about in 1939 ; it is still unresolved, though dormant. At no stage was the 
English Church able to present a united front against its critics ; and 
this is one chief reason why only a tiny minority of the clergy opposed 
either the Henrician reformation or the Elizabethan settlement. The 

* It was done with the approval of such leading papalists as Bishop Fisher of 
Rochester. Wolsey' s agent in the business was Thomas Cromwell, who thereby acquired 
a closer acquaintance with conditions in the monasteries, and with the social and legal 
technicalities of dissolution, than any other man in England. The case against the regular 
clergy was not so much that they were corrupt (though some were) as that they were idle : 
about 8,000 men and women sitting on one-eighth of the country's wealth. The 357 lesser 
monasteries averaged less than four religious each. Butley Priory, in Suffolk, had only 12 
canons ; but it maintained two chaplains, 1 1 valets, a barber, three cooks, a slaughterman, 
a sacristan, a cooper, three bakers and brewers, two grooms, two maltsters, a porter, a 
gardener, six laundresses, an under-steward, a surveyor and 36 estate-workers. 



English clergy nearly always sided with the authorities, even when their 
brethren were being persecuted. The only occasions in the whole of 
English Catholic history when a majority of the bishops opposed the 
State were during the desperate crisis years of King John's reign - and 
then only for a very short time - and in the first year of Elizabeth ; and 
on this second occasion the bishops had been hand-picked by Mary for 
their ultramontane views. Henry vm had to execute only one bishop, 
Fisher of Rochester, who was a notorious opponent of reform in any 
shape (he hotly defended pluralism and absentee clergy), and who was 
certainly guilty of treason, in 1533, when he invited the Emperor to 
invade England. Among the ordinary clergy, acquiescence in the 
changes in religion was the prevailing pattern. Less than i per cent of 
the regulars defied Henry vm when he seized their property; less than 
half of i per cent of the seculars rejected the Elizabethan settlement. The 
Church Militant may not have been dead by the time the Reformation 
came ; but it certainly put up very little resistance. 

Of course the Church of England had been conditioned to lay supre- 
macy long before Henry vm made it formal. What killed papalism in 
England were the French wars of the fourteenth century. Edward HI'S 
statutes of Provisors and Praemunire, which in effect made it a capital 
offence to obey the Pope as opposed to the King, were the direct product 
of English xenophobia, generated by hatred of the French and the new 
consciousness of English nationalism. Praemunire in particular was an 
omnibus statute which could be used against anyone and everyone who 
defied the King on spiritual matters. As one papalist at Henry vm's 
court remarked, no one really understood the statute, or could construct 
a defence against a charge under it, because it meant whatever the King 
wanted it to mean. Yet many, perhaps most, Englishmen would argue 
that it went no further than what had always been the accepted position 
of the English Crown in its relationships with the Pope : it was part of 
the great continuity of English history. William I had demanded, and 
got, no less. The consequences of John's surrender of the realm to the 
Pope was a temporary aberration, and the surrender itself illegal and 
ultra vires. The popes could do nothing against the solidity of the English 
State. Martin v, early in the fifteenth century, conceded: 'It is not the 
Pope but the King of England who governs the Church in his dominions/ 
In 1486 many precedents were quoted, in Parliament, by the Lord Chiei 
Justice and the Bishop of London for the proposition that 'the Pope 
could not lawfully act in derogation of the King and his Crown*. Several 
popes tried to persuade the English monarchy to repeal Praemunire, but 
were brushed aside. The relationships between individual clergy and the 
papal see were rigidly and ruthlessly controlled. Papal powers were 



often conceded in theory but denied in practice. The appointment of 
bishops was typical of how the system worked. In 1446, for instance, the 
Pope was permitted to nominate a new Bishop of Norwich; but the 
bishop had formally to renounce all the provisions of the bull appointing 
him before being allowed to take up the see. English bishops and abbots 
travelling to Rome had to promise before their departure to sue or 
procure there nothing that was prejudicial to the King, the rights of the 
Crown, or the rights of his subjects. Papal envoys were liable to arrest: 
there was a regular form of writ for this purpose. The attitude of the 
English to Rome was notorious. In 1468 the envoy of the Duke of Milan 
wailed: 'In the morning the English are as devout as angels, but after 
dinner they are like devils, seeking to throw the Pope's messenger into 
the sea/ 

The English, indeed, were perfectly capable of combining doctrinal 
orthodoxy with rabid anti-clericalism, though they were equally capable 
of favouring heresy if they thought it would suit their purposes. On the 
whole an orthodox king, who took an active interest in religion, was the 
most dangerous opponent the Pope faced. No English monarch treated 
papal claims more harshly than Henry v. But he was a pious, high- 
minded and fanatical Catholic. He personally supervised the burning of 
heretics ; on one occasion he had a Lollard blacksmith taken out from the 
flames when he was already half-dead, exhorted him to recant, and when 
he refused thrust him back on the pyre. He evidently considered himself 
the effective head of the English Church, for he personally carried out a 
visitation of the English monasteries, examining the monks, correcting 
and punishing abuses, and laying down standards of conduct. From 
the Pope's point of view this was a most sinister precedent, a direct 
adumbration of the events of 1536. Henry v was regarded as a true son of 
the Church because he never talked during mass and had monks cas- 
trated for sexual incontinence. But it was precisely his religious zeal 
which made him a menace to Rome. This was Rome's fault. The claims 
of the papacy to divine authority as Christ's vicar led to a corresponding 
exaltation of kingship; the divine right of the Monarch was the secular 
mirror of ecclesiastical self-glorification. And the King had physical 
force where the Pope had only threats and curses. Henry v thought he 
acted on the direct orders of the Deity; God won him his battles; God 
told him to uphold orthodoxy, and reform abuses. He might one day 
issue instructions to reform abuse at the source, in Rome. By the 
fifteenth century there was universal agreement among the high- 
minded that the Church was in need of reformation. Ecumenical coun- 
cils were held for this purpose; the best of the clergy preached and 
agitated for reform. But the papacy was incapable of reforming itself. 



After a century of talk about reform, it ended up with a Borgia pope, a 
man of the quality of Alexander vi ; a reforming monk like Savonarola 
ended up at the stake. The papacy did not begin to take religion 
seriously until the 15505, and by then it was too late. 

But perhaps it was fortunate for the popes, in the long run, that the 
English Reformation was delayed, Henry v would have made a much 
more formidable opponent than Henry vm. He had no respect for the 
papacy: when Bishop Beaufort, the richest man in the kingdom, sought 
a cardinal's hat without the royal permission, Henry immediately 
placed him in peril of his life, and mulcted him of the enormous sum of 
26,000. Had Henry lived a few more months he would have become 
King of France and a European tyrant. He was the only English king 
who could win and hold provinces as well as mere battles. Had he 
survived to middle age, the probability is that this zealous, God-inspired 
man would have superintended a Reformation of an altogether different 
kind, and have created a new Church - all in the name of orthodoxy - of 
European extent and Caesaropapalist flavour. In such a Church the 
Pope would have been a mere subordinate and functionary: the 
Hildebrandine programme in reverse. 

How far the English would have relished such a scheme is difficult to 
judge. Most of them, in so far as they took any interest in religion, were 
Anglicans, as they always had been. They wanted an English Church, 
run by Englishmen. They did not object to a link with Rome provided the 
Pope did not interfere, especially in appointments and finance. They 
thought there were too many idle, dissolute and criminal clergymen, and 
objected strongly to the fact that some of them were foreigners. As a 
matter of fact the foreigners were not to blame; their numbers fell 
sharply as a result of Provisors, while the clerical crime-rate went up. 
The public took a prejudiced view of clerical behaviour. In 1515 the 
Bishop of London complained to Wolsey that any jury of twelve men in 
London would convict any clergyman whatsoever, 'though he were as 
innocent as Abel' ; he spoke with feeling, for his Chancellor had just been 
accused of murdering a tailor.* London juries hated clergymen even 

* The tailor was called Richard Hunne. He declined on principle to pay mortuary dues 
after the burial of his child, and was successfully prosecuted in the Bishop of London's 
court. He replied by serving a writ of Praemunire, whereupon Bishop Fitzjames, a 
notorious reactionary, accused him of heresy and committed him to the Lollards' Tower 
at St Paul's. Two days later he was found with his neck broken, and a London jury 
brought in a verdict of wilful murder against the Bishop's Chancellor, Dr Horsey. 
Horsey was almost certainly guilty; but the Bishop ignored the verdict, pronounced 
Hunne a heretic, had his body burnt at Smithfield and confiscated his property, making 
his widow and family paupers, The case aroused the fury of the Londoners, and was one 
reason why the Reformation was so popular in the capital. See A, Ogle : The Tragedy of 
the Lollards' Tower (Oxford, 1949). 


more than Welshmen. But we should not confuse anti-clericalism \vith 
a mass movement against orthodoxy. Clerical recruitment was increas- 
ing right up to the breach with Rome. As we know from a sharp account 
written by Erasmus, who visited Canterbury about 1512 with a friend 
(probably Dean Colet), the shrine of St Thomas was still doing a roaring 
trade, both national and international, on the eve of the Reformation. 
It was pulling in 8,000 a year (half the cost of maintaining the Calais 
garrison), much of it in foreign currency. 

On the other hand there was, and had been for nearly two centuries, 
an important and active minority working for radical reforms of doc- 
trine and organisation in the Church. They represented a streak of 
heterodoxy in England which went back right to the earliest days of 
Christianity. It is very significant that William of Ockham, the four- 
teenth-century scholar who conducted a frontal assault on the prevailing 
orthodoxy of the Schoolmen, was accused of Pelagianism, and did in fact 
uphold the individualist tradition of free will which, as we have seen, 
the Briton Pelagius had founded in the early years of the fifth century. 
At any rate, Ockham's teaching directly inspired Wyclif ; and Wyclif , 
writing and preaching in the 13705 and 1380$, adumbrated virtually all 
of the Reformation programme: consubstantiation, the English Bible 
and the use of the vernacular instead of Latin, the end of idolatry, the 
royal supremacy, the breach with Rome, and the confiscation of clerical 
property. He hated the Romanist bishops, and they hated him. He was 
reputed to be the best English scholar of the day, and the University of 
Oxford closed ranks behind him until its resistance was smashed by the 
brute pow r er of the hierarchy. Wyclif 's teachings appealed strongly to 
the anti-clericalism of the House of Commons ; and he had an influential, 
if select, following among the very rich. But after the Peasants' Revolt 
struck terror into the possessing classes, the organs of the State were 
turned against his movement. In 1401 Parliament passed the statute 
De Haeretico Comburendo, empowering the secular authorities to under- 
write decisions in the clerical courts by burning the heterodox. Between 
then and the Reformation some 100 Lollards were executed, some as 
late as the reign of Henry vni. But Lollardy was only driven under- 
ground; it had both a popular following and support from individual 
members of the gentry; it survived as a distinct minority movement, 
until in the 15203 it merged with Lutheranism.* Thus, when the breach 
with Rome came, a very ancient English tradition, maintained admit- 
tedly only by a minority, w r as available to supply doctrinal nourishment. 

* Lollardy was particularly popular among weavers, clothworkers, wheelwrights, 
smiths, carpenters, shoemakers and tailors. See A.G. Dickens: 'Heresy and the Origins of 
English Protestantism' in Britain and the Xethfrlands II (Groningen, 1964). 



One of the reasons why the Reformation was successful in England was 
that there was absolutely nothing new about it. All its elements - anti- 
clericalism, anti-papalism, the exaltation of the Crown in spiritual 
matters, the envy of clerical property, even the yearning for doctrinal 
reform - were deeply rooted in the English past. 

The breach with Rome, like the 1914 War, could have come at almost 
any time. The elements had been there for decades ; only a spark was 
needed. There were sinister portents that English xenophobia was on the 
boil again. On May Day 1517 the London mob carried out an anti-foreign 
pogrom; two years later some of Henry vm's younger friends were 
expelled from court on the grounds that they had 'French manners'. 
Once Henry had decided to divorce Catherine, it became obvious that 
the breach would come unless the Pope did what Henry wanted; this 
was Wolsey's view from the start, and he warned Pope Clement vn 
repeatedly that Rome's future in England hinged on the divorce. Yet 
oddly enough the divorce was the one issue on which Henry did not have 
public opinion behind him. It is a curious fact that English kings who 
quarrel with their wives always forfeit the general sympathy. There was 
no reason why Catherine should be popular; but she was. Both Houses 
of Parliament disliked the divorce, and the prospective marriage into 
the Boleyn family still more; when steering the Reformation legislation 
through Parliament, Thomas Cromwell was always careful to divert 
attention from the personal issue to the safe ground of clerical abuses. 

Yet Henry was undoubtedly right to seek a divorce. As he saw it, in 
the light of recent English history, the provision of a male heir who 
would have communal backing for his title to the throne was essential 
to stable government, and was thus a necessity of State. It was intoler- 
able that this vital national interest should be jeopardised by the actions 
of a foreign power, the papacy, motivated not primarily by spiritual 
considerations but by the needs of its own foreign policy. Any self- 
confident English king would have taken the same line. Moreover Henry 
believed, and may have been right to believe, that his marriage to 
Catherine was genuinely invalid. There had been a technical impedi- 
ment of public honesty, as Wolsey pointed out; unfortunately Henry 
ignored this point, and concentrated his case on the more complex and 
intellectually fascinating grounds of affinity, where the consensus of 
European canonical opinion went against him.* The trouble with Henry 

* Catherine had earlier been married to Henry's elder brother Arthur, who had died ; 
when Henry married her, in turn, a papal dispensation was required to remove the 
obstacle of affinity. Henry now claimed this bull was invalid, on the grounds that the 
Pope had exceeded his powers. In 1527 Catherine, seeking to defend her marriage 
to Henry, declared that she had never slept with Arthur. But she should have said 
so in 1503, and the bull would then have been issued on a different basis. Hence the 



was that he was a clever, shallow-brained pseudo-scholar, prone to 
sudden enthusiasms - to go on crusade, to get elected Emperor, to make 
Wolsey Pope, to become an author. He now embarked on a career as 
professional theologian, but was much too mentally indolent to get to 
the roots of the matter.* 

Happily he was saved by the frivolity and deceitfulness of the Pope. 
Clement evidently did not take the breach seriously, or at least never 
imagined it would be permanent. At the height of the divorce dispute he 
wrote a letter to Henry asking for facilities to be given to a friend of his 
who wanted to examine some English libraries; he did not seem to grasp 
that Henry, and indeed the English, were playing for keeps. (In 1536, 
after Anne had been beheaded, Clement's successor assumed the slate 
was wiped clean and everyone could be reconciled; the fact that the 
English Reformation had taken place appears to have escaped him.) 
Most of all, Clement was dishonest in his actual handling of the case; it 
was this aspect which swung the English ruling class, not initially in 
favour of the royal divorce, behind Henry. A significant episode took 
place in London when Cardinal Campeggio, the legate, acting on secret 
instructions from Clement, adjourned the ecclesiastical court set up to 
settle Catherine's divorce. The evidence of Clement's duplicity then 
became manifest even to the far-from-active brain of the Duke of 
Suffolk. He crashed his fist on the table and said: 'By the mass, now I 
see that the old said saw is true, that there was never legate nor cardinal 
that did good in England/ He was consciously echoing the words 
spoken by Henry n during the Becket crisis 370 years before: 'I hope I 
will never set eyes on another cardinal/ 

Most Englishmen understood the international implications of the 
Reformation no more clearly than the Duke of Suffolk; though, like 
him, they sensed them instinctively. But the two cleverest men in 
England, More and Cromwell, got the point. They saw it as a historic 
choice in foreign policy, no less than in religion. Both were reformers, in 

impedimentum publicae honestatis, as Wolsey pointed out. Henry's argument from affinity 
was never strong; and it was weakened still further by the fact that he proposed to marry 
the sister, Anne Boleyn, of a woman with whom, on his own admission, he had had 
sexual relations : this also constituted a barrier on grounds of affinity : if his marriage 
to Catherine was invalid then so, for the same reason, would be his marriage to Anne. 
Whether he would have won his case if he had followed Wolsey's line of attack is, how- 
ever, doubtful. Clement could not afford to grant the divorce because he could not risk 
offending Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles v. In 1530 he even proposed that 
Henry should stay married to Catherine, marry Anne too, and thus commit bigamy. For 
a recent and illuminating analysis of the canon law of the divorce, see J. J. Scarisbrick: 
Henry VIII (1968), Chapter vn. 

* For a more appreciative estimate of Henry vm's capacities, and an ingenious analysis 
of his methods of government, backed by copious references to the sources, see Lacey 
Baldwin Smith: Henry VIII, the Mask of Royalty (London, 1971). 



that they wanted a spiritual regeneration of the Church ; in all else they 
differed fundamentally. More was a European, Cromwell an English 
nationalist ; they symbolised the division into the two categories which 
Henry vin himself called 'Englishmen papistical' and 'entire English- 
men'. More represented the ancient minority tradition of the imperial 
party in 410, of Gildas in 550, of Wilfred in the seventh century, of 
Becket in the twelfth century, of Stephen Langton in the thirteenth. To 
him, England was not an island but part of a great Continental com- 
munity; it could not cut itself adrift by a unilateral act ; it was bound to 
European Christendom by an indissoluble spiritual treaty, which it 
might attempt to reform from within but which it could not renounce 
without defying God. It was nothing to him that a majority of the 
English people, a majority even of the English Church, accepted separa- 
tion ; this was something no one nation could determine for itself. The 
supranational authority of the community overrode national self- 
interest. As he told his judge in Westminster Hall : 

I am not bounded, my Lord, to conform my conscience to the Council of 
one realm against the General Council of Christendom. For of the aforesaid 
holy bishops I have, for every bishop of yours, above one hundred; and for 
one Council of Parliament of yours (God knoweth what manner of one), I 
have all the Councils made these thousand years. And for this one kingdom, 
I have all other Christian realms. 

More, in fact, explicitly denied English sovereignty: 

This realm, being but one member and small part of the Church, might 
not make a particular law dischargeable with the general law of Christ's holy 
Catholic Church, no more than the City of London, being but one poor 
member in respect of the whole realm, might make a law against an act of 

More can thus be presented as adumbrating modern internationalist 
doctrine, in which nations voluntarily relinquish portions of their 
sovereignty to provide a common fund of authority for such organs as 
the United Nations or the European Economic Community. But equally 
he can be seen as upholding an ancient and ramshackle structure, whose 
reality had never corresponded to its ideals, and which was now break- 
ing up under the stress of nationalism: the Catholic Church, in its capa- 
city as residuary legatee of the Roman Empire. The current of the times 
was against More. His European Christendom was a mirage. Continental 
Catholicism was not an international community, operating by con- 
sensus or majority vote, but the helpless prize in a power-struggle 
between emergent nations. In 1534 orthodox Christendom was 



coterminous with the interests of the House of Habsburg, whose head 
was identified with Spanish imperialism. When, that year, the Pope 
finally pronounced in favour of Catherine's marriage, the Roman mob 
screamed out in triumph : 'Empire and Spain !' 

Cromwell saw this well enough. He lacked More's academic back- 
ground, but he knew far more about what was going on in Europe. He 
had been, so he told Archbishop Cranmer, 'a ruffian in my younger 
days', and had made his way abroad. He is believed to have fought in 
the French army at the Battle of Garigliano in 1503 ; he had worked as 
a banker in Florence and Venice, and as a business consultant in Ant- 
werp. He had negotiated with courts and popes. He knew Europe from 
the inside, and he knew it to be the world not of Christian unity, but of 
Machiavelli. In 1523, as a young Member of Parliament, he had made a 
very significant speech, highly critical of the Continental foreign policy 
waged by Wolsey and the King. These European entanglements, he 
said, were misjudged and likely to prove ruinous; England should look 
to her own national interest, and in the first place the unity of the 
British Isles. Cromwell never wavered in this view. England must come 
first. Her Church must reflect her needs, not those of some Continental 
despot. The King in Parliament was supreme, the ultimate arbiter of 
the national destinies. There could be no abridgement of sovereignty. 
As he put it in the statutes he drafted: This realm is an empire' - that 
is, it acknowledged no superior but God. It was no coincidence that 
Henry was having the archives ransacked to produce evidence that 
Arthur was an emperor and had renounced allegiance to Rome. Crom- 
well, as well as More, stood in a great English tradition; and his was the 
majority one. But most Englishmen lacked his clarity. They simply felt 
in their bones, like the Duke of Suffolk, that foreign prelates had no 
business interfering in English affairs. The crash of the Duke's tradi- 
tionalist fist was thus the real beginning of the English Reformation. 

The Reformation, indeed, was a typical piece of English conservatism, 
conducted with the familiar mixture of muddle, deviousness, hypocrisy, 
and ex post facto rationalisation. Henry was never quite clear in his own 
mind whether he wanted an actual change in religion, though there is 
evidence that in his last years he was moving in that direction; it is 
significant that he excluded Bishop Gardiner, the leading Romanist, 
from the council he appointed to manage his young heir. He had no plan 
of action, moving from one expedient to another. When he slapped a 
writ of Praemunire on the entire English clergy in 1530 he really had all 
the instruments he needed to control the Church. By agreeing to submit 
all decisions of Convocation to him, the Church in effect recognised his 
supremacy. Some of the subsequent acts, and in particular the Act of 



Supremacy itself in 1534, were unnecessary.* The progressive seizure of 
monastic property was very much an ad hoc business, and its subsequent 
disposal was conducted on no apparent principles of equity, public 
finance, economic reason or elementary common sense. 

On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, we can recognise two 
important elements of long-term policy in this apparent confusion. It 
may be that Cromwell, one of the ablest men who ever served the Crown, 
was far more deliberate and systematic in his methods than his master, 
or than appears at first sight. Cromwell was a parliamentary manager; 
it was on his advice that the Reformation was carried through by 
Parliament, in the most punctilious and thorough constitutional 
manner, providing the Crown with a massive overkill of statutory 
weapons for present and future use against Romanism. Why should the 
King place himself so completely in the hands of Parliament, beyond, as 
it were, the call of duty? Earlier in his reign the House of Commons 
could, and did, 'dash 7 government bills (that is, reject them) ; it had 
always to be coaxed ; it \vas not always united, and from this reign we get 
the first known instance of a formal division of the House. The explana- 
tion, or rather Cromwell's explanation, was no doubt that Parliament, 
itself the national repository of anti-clericalism, was the best guarantor 
of the permanency of the breach with Rome. And so it proved. After the 
Reformation Parliament, it became impossible for the Monarch (irres- 
pective of personal religious views) to decide such matters except in a 
parliamentary context. It was very significant that Queen Mary had to 
go to Parliament to get Henry's laws reversed ; and on certain matters it 
declined to do so. Mary could not really put the clock back without 
destroying Parliament and operating a personal tyranny. And although 
her parliament restored the link with Rome, it was axiomatic that the 
decision could be easily reversed. Parliament's sovereignty in spiritual 
matters - the superiority of its statutes to any natural law, or canon 
law, or anything the Pope might enact - had thus been formally acknow- 
ledged even by a fanatically Catholic queen. After that the Elizabethan 
settlement was simple and obvious. 

* Unless of course we assume that Henry wished to terrorise his enemies into abject 
compliance by acquiring the legal right to execute them. Thomas More, for instance, had 
resigned as Chancellor in 1532, in protest against the enforced surrender of Convocation. 
By declining to take the oath of succession (of Anne's children), he was guilty of mis- 
prision of treason, which made him liable to imprisonment during the King's pleasure, 
but not death. The Act of Supremacy was accompanied by a new Treason Act, which 
prescribed the death penalty for 'malicious' denial of the King's title. It was on this basis 
that More, and others, were executed. More had to wait 400 years for canonisation, a 
scandalous example of the way Rome treats English saints. In the next century John 
Aubrey noted : 'Methinks 'tis strange that all this time he is not canonised for he merited 
highly of the church.' 



This political underpinning of the Reformation was reinforced by the 
creation of a huge vested interest in its permanency. By the end of 
Henry's reign, the bulk of the monastic lands had passed into the hands 
of private individuals. Their total annual value was about 200,000 at 
1536 prices; the actual capital receipts by the Crown for their sale was 
not much more than 1-5 million ; if the Crown had kept all the lands its 
income from them by 1547 would have exceeded the sale price. Such a 
policy, therefore, did not make any financial sense. But the King's 
Government was not composed of fools. We must do them the elemen- 
tary justice of assuming they knew what they were about. The prob- 
ability is that the policy of selling land in a flooded buyer's market was 
deliberately inspired by political motives : to give the propertied classes 
of England a direct, financial interest in the dissolution. After 1545, 
there were very few wealthy or influential Englishmen who did not have 
a personal stake in the Reformation. 

The success of this policy became apparent when Mary set about 
reversing her father's work. Despite her efforts to rig elections, and 
to have returned to Parliament 'men of the wise, grave and Catholic 
sort' (i.e. the older generation), the Commons not only flatly refused to 
restore the monastic lands but insisted on passing a statute to safeguard 
their present owners. Even Mary's hands were not entirely clean. She 
said she would give back the lands still held by the Crown. But there was 
the important matter, for instance, of the 'Regale of France*. This 
enormous and valuable jewel, probably a ruby, had been presented to 
the shrine of St Thomas by Louis vn of France. It was the glory of the 
shrine, and had been promptly pocketed by Henry when the tomb was 
demolished. He had it made into a ring, which he wore on his thumb. 
Now Mary should have given the jewel back; but she did no such thing. 
She had it made into the centrepiece of a brilliant collar, which she 
constantly wore in public. So all the world could see that she herself, no 
less, was a beneficiary of the Reformation. 

As it happens, it was Mary's own actions which killed Roman Catholi- 
cism as the majority English religion. She had all the murderous 
instincts of her father and grandfather.* The English were accustomed 
to seeing people burnt for their religious views ; about 60 had been thus 

* Physically she took after her father, being fair-haired. She had that ferocity in 
virtue characteristic of a certain type of Englishwoman, to be seen today at Tory Party 
Conferences when hanging and flogging are on the agenda. Mary must take prime respon- 
sibility for the burnings. Her husband, Philip n, was against the policy ; so was his ambas- 
sador in London, Simon Reynard, who said that at least the executions should be carried 
out secretly. But the English, including Mary, felt that to hold executions in public was 
a guarantee of liberty. As late as the i86os, public executions were defended (e.g. by 
Palmerston) on the grounds that to give the executive the right to put people to death in 
secret would open the door to tyranny. 



disposed of during the first 20 years of the Reformation. Some had been 
Catholics and some Protestants. The English were not fanatical about 
religion, and regarded execution as a fair professional hazard for those 
who were. But what struck contemporaries was the sheer scale of the 
Marian persecution. There had been nothing like it seen in England 
before; it had the flavour of Continental excess. Over three years, 
Mary burnt just under 300 people, including 60 women. Moreover, these 
public killings were concentrated heavily in the opinion- forming areas ; 
London and the Home Counties provided two-thirds of the total ; there 
was only one killing in the north and one south-west of Salisbury. There 
was, too, an unpleasant class flavour about it all. There was no man of 
breeding among the lay martyrs. Mary showed a craven clemency 
towards the well born, even if they were traitors. This idea of one law 
for the rich and another for the poor again had the smell of Continental 
tyranny about it and was deeply resented - not just among the lower 
classes. The killing sickened even some of Mary's strongest clerical 
supporters, and long before her death it was evident to all that her 
policy had not only failed but had inflicted grievous damage on her 
cause.* The hatred her persecutions aroused became an important fact of 
English history for a very long time. They confirmed to most English 
people that their anti-foreign, anti-papal views were not just prejudices 
but rooted in a sound instinct for self-preservation. Foxe's Book of 
Martyrs sold more copies than any other publication after the English 
Bible ; it was placed in churches, and kept in the homes of all classes. 
Every literate person read it, and it was recited to those who could not 
read. It was the first history of England to reach the masses, and for 
many it embodied everything they knew about their country. Until 
Mary's reign there was a real prospect of a multi-religious community 
emerging in England. By her death this was no longer possible. 

The problem which faced Elizabeth on her accession was how to bring 
to an end the violent oscillations in the State religion, to de-escalate the 
rising frenzy of doctrinal killings, and, if possible, to take religion out of 
politics. By temperament she was an agnostic. To her, religious belief 
must be subordinate to the needs of public order and social decorum. 
She would have agreed with John Knox's view, indeed taken it as a 
compliment, that she 'was neither good protestant nor yet resolute 
papist'. She also agreed with the Duke of Norfolk when he told her: 

* Even Bishop Bonner of London, the arch-villain of Protestant hagiography, was 
officially reproved for his slackness in punishing heretics. When upbraided for his 
severity in having an elderly man whipped, he replied : 'If thou hadst been in his case, 
thou wouldst have thought it a good commutation of penance to have thy bum beaten 
to save thy body from burning/ The real instigators may have been Mary's Spanish 
confessors. See A. G. Dickens: The English Reformation (London 1967), Chapter n. 



* England can bear no more changes in religion. It hath been bowed so 
often that if it should bend again it will break/ Elizabeth undoubtedly 
prayed to a very royalist Deity in moments of crisis and anxiety, but she 
took the view, shared by the overwhelming majority of her subjects, that 
doctrine was not a thing that any sensible person would kill or be killed 
for. She hated capital punishment by instinct and reason. It seemed to 
her monstrous to kill a man for his beliefs alone ; only four people were 
executed for heresy in her reign, none of them Catholics, and all against 
her will. People should even be allowed to state their views, within 
reason. As she put it to the Commons: 'God forbid that any man should 
be restrained or afraid to answer according to his best liking, with some 
short declaration of his reason therein/ As for private views: 'I seek not 
to carve windows into men's souls/ What she was looking for was a 
lowest common denominator of agreement on religious matters, under- 
written by statute, upheld by the State, and accepted by the public as 
reasonable. What she would not tolerate was anyone who strove to 
upset such a settlement by force; that was treason, because it was 
aimed at the tranquillity of the realm, and was certain to lead to blood- 

Thus Elizabeth was forced, with the greatest reluctance, to turn first 
against the Catholics and then against the Puritans. She did not want to 
persecute anyone; but both groups, in the end, left her with no alter- 
native. Within five months of her accession, she had passed Acts of 
Uniformity and Supremacy; the clergy were required to take the oath, 
but the few who refused were merely deprived of their benefices. No 
Catholics were executed then, or for many years afterwards. But Eliza- 
beth's difficulty was that, by the time she came to the throne, the papacy 
was beginning to take religion seriously, and, worse, do something about 
it. As late as 1541 Cardinal Contarini had advocated a rapprochement 
with the heretics ; but by his death the next year he was regarded as a 
heretic himself. His opponent, Cardinal Caraffa, set up the inquisition in 
Rome in 1542, and in 1555 was elected Pope as Paul iv. He did, in fact, 
what men had asked for during the last 150 years: he reformed the 
Church of Rome, but on the basis of doctrinal fanaticism and the 
ruthless enforcement of central authority. He invented the Index, forced 
Jews to w r ear yellow caps and live in ghettoes; killed off w r hat was left of 
the Italian Renaissance. In 1570 the equally fanatical Pius v began to 
take steps to bring England back into the fold by force. This was by now 
a forlorn venture. It was not to be expected that many English people, 
whatever their religious views, would wish to replace Elizabeth, a ruler 
with a reputation for prudence and virtue, with a sound hereditary and 
parliamentary title, by Mary Queen of Scots, a foreigner tainted with the 



double disadvantage of Scottish and French descent, a notorious adul- 
teress, a probable murderess, and with an infinite capacity for causing 
trouble wherever she went. There is no evidence that the English 
Catholics, as a group, wanted to expel their queen. Most of them did not 
care a damn for the Pope; they never had done. What they did care 
about was the mass, and certain other spiritual comforts of the old 
religion. They were, like the genuine Protestants, a minority group, and 
Elizabeth would have been prepared to give them minority rights. But 
the papacy, by excommunicating Elizabeth, and by instructing English 
Catholics to depose her, branded them with treason. Her penal legis- 
lation was a response to papal aggression, as William i and Henry n had 
responded. The belated reformation of Rome brought not reconciliation 
but war, and in the course of it the destruction of English Catholicism. 
The Catholics could not logically plead that they still served the Queen 
without renouncing the Pope ; they were either bad Catholics, by papal 
definition, or bad Englishmen. Campion, in his famous Brag, put the 
best construction he could on this double loyalty; it was not convincing 
then, and it is not convincing today. If Rome triumphed again in 
England - as Campion by his own admission wished - he would have had 
to obey orders like any other loyal Catholic, and to take part in what- 
ever acts of treason and persecution the Pope thought fit. The English are 
not particularly logical; but they saw the logic of this problem quite 
clearly. Moreover Campion was not typical of the cohorts Rome sent to 
England ; a more representative figure was the sinister Father Parsons, 
a professional international conspirator. The Elizabethan persecution of 
Catholics was thus justified by the needs of State and public security, 
and on the whole it was carried out in a reticent manner. Elizabeth 
throughout preferred fines and imprisonment to execution; she killed 
on average no more than eight a year ; and nearly all of them got a fair 
trial. But she could not save the English Catholic community; at her 
death only about 10,000 were still prepared to declare themselves 
publicly Romanists. 

The threat to Elizabeth from the Puritans was far greater, and she 
was in the end obliged to take it seriously. English Puritanism was born 
among the Marian exiles of the 15505 ; it was thus an alien import. It had 
a consistency wholly foreign to the English. The exclusive authority of 
scripture, for instance, though favoured by Wyclif, appeared to most 
Englishmen to make no more sense than the magisterium of Rome. 
The doctrine of predestination was ludicrous. The Puritan argument 
with the authorities began over vestments but quickly spread to include 
almost everything, from the royal supremacy downwards. The Puritans, 
like the Roman Catholic extremists, believed that religion was the only 


important thing in life, whereas most Englishmen thought it was some- 
thing you did on Sundays. They were influential out of all proportion to 
their numbers because, like the Communists in our own age, they were 
highly organised, disciplined and adept at getting each other into positions 
of power. They were strong in the universities, at a time when a growing 
proportion of university figures were being elected to Parliament. They 
oozed hypocrisy. Peter Wentworth and his brother took their stands in 
Parliament on the right of free speech. But they did not believe in free 
speech. They believed in a doctrinaire religion, imposed by force and 
maintained by persecution. Wentworth was a fanatical proponent of 
alien ideas who wanted to turn England into a Geneva run by Calvinists. 
Fortunately Elizabeth was quite capable of dealing with such men. 
She suspended one Archbishop of Canterbury, Grindal, for being too 
soft with the Puritans and, in 1583, appointed another, Whitgift, for his 
known anti-Puritan views. She killed only four of them; but a good 
number were gaoled, and on the whole she held the movement in check. 
We need spare no great sympathy for these Puritan gentlemen. They 
were, in a sense, the mirror-image of the Counter-Reformation, for 
Ignatius Loyola was a Puritan too, though a Puritan of the Right. The 
privileges the Puritans claimed for themselves they would certainly 
have denied to others. One of the best-argued defences of persecution to 
come from any sect during the whole period of religious controversy was 
A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649), 
written by Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian. Another Puritan, Dr 
Reynolds of Oxford, was the scourge of the Elizabethan theatre which, 
as he made clear in The Overthrow of Stage Plays (1599), he wished to ban 
completely. The Puritans forced the theatres to move from the City of 
London to Southwark. If they had triumphed nationally, many of the 
greatest works of English literature would never have been written, for 
they could not have been produced. Shakespeare, Jonson and Webster, 
no doubt, would have turned to other professions. The Puritans did not 
believe in reason, but in the Bible. The early Protestants had rightly 
denounced the gross superstitions of the popish church ; such instruments 
of the old regime as the notorious Boxley Rood had been exhibited in 
London to the jeers of the mob. But among many Protestant sects new 
and more virulent forms of superstition soon appeared, springing in 
many cases from the literal interpretation of the Bible. Luther himself, 
the castigator of indulgences, believed that the Devil deliberately 
created flies to distract him when he was writing works of edification. In 
Geneva men and women were sent to the stake for allegedly spreading 
the plague. Above all, Puritanism was the dynamic behind the increase 
in witch-hunting. Despite the efforts of the Crown and the episcopal 



bench, vast numbers of innocent women were put to death. It had been 
suggested that the hunts had an economic purpose: to rid society of 
pauper women who would otherwise have to be fed from public funds. 
But this seems too cruel and cynical even for the English. Doubtless the 
motives were mixed. Witch-hunting was an old English tradition. In the 
fifteenth century even the wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, barely- 
escaped with her life on trumped-up charges. But the Puritan concept of 
evil led to an appalling escalation in the scale of persecution.* 

It is against this background of murderous zeal that we must place 
the achievement of Elizabeth in stabilising the religious system of 
England on a basis of moderation, common sense and tolerance. It was a 
personal achievement, for most of her advisers were not noted for any of 
these characteristics. It was an enduring achievement, too, for the Eliza- 
bethan religious settlement survived all the shocks of the next century, 
and emerged into modern times roughly the same article. Elizabeth 
would have recognised, and approved, the services, doctrines, customs, 
attitudes and organisation of Anglicanism as they exist today. To be 
sure, she had no great respect for the Anglican Church, and still less for 
most of its dignitaries. But this down-grading of the priestly class was 
central to her attitude, and reflected the general desire of the great mass 
of the population. Elizabeth felt that religion was too dangerous an 
element in the body politic to be safely left to clergymen. It should be 
the servant of the public, not its master. It should provide comfort in a 
harsh and painful world, not add to the troubles of society by provoking 
controversy and division. She wholeheartedly echoed the cry of the 
moderate Protestant Sebastian Castellio, who expressed, in Whether 
Heretics Are to Be Prosecuted?, published in the 15603, the view of all 
sensible Christians who peered through the mists of conflicting dogmas 
to the heart of their faith : 

Christ, creator and king of the world, dost thou see? Art thou become 
quite other than thyself, so cruel, so contrary to thyself? When thou didst 
live upon earth, none was more gentle, more merciful, more patient of 
wrong. . . . Men scourged thee, spat upon thee, mocked thee, crowned thee 
with thorns, crucified thee among thieves and thou didst pray for them who 
did this wrong. Art thou now so changed? ... If thou, O Christ, hast com- 
manded these executions and tortures, what hast thou left for the Devil 
to do? 

Elizabeth felt that the religion of the people must be safeguarded by the 
moderate intervention of the State, acting in the public interest ; it was 

* The exact number killed in England is still in dispute: probably about a thousand 
over two centuries. For a recent, and fair-minded, discussion of the subject, see A.L. 
Rowse: The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (London I97 1 ). Chapter 9. 



not the business of the clergy to determine religion, merely to administer 
it. This was a thoroughly English approach. A man's religion was a 
matter between himself and his God ; its outward forms and organisa- 
tion were a matter for the due constitutional process of law. The English 
have the great merit of recognising that bishops should be appointed not 
by those who care deeply about religion, but by those whose duty it is to 
preserve public order and decorum. Equally, in doctrine, the object was 
not to thrash out the minutiae of belief, but to draw up a code sufficiently 
vague, ambiguous and ramshackle to persuade the maximum number of 
people to accept it without too much strain on their consciences. The 
Thirty-Nine Articles admirably fulfilled this aim. No one man has ever 
been able to agree with every single element in them, or even to under- 
stand precisely what they mean ; but over the centuries vast numbers of 
clergymen have happily sworn to uphold them because their spirit is 
obvious, and sufficiently enveloping to cover a wide range of belief. The 
English have never made the mistake of saddling themselves with a 
written constitution. In the mid-sixteenth century the pressure of the 
times left them no alternative but to adopt a religious constitution. 
They solved the problem by producing a document which made non- 
sense in detail but admirable sense taken as a whole. 

The truth is that the English are not, and never have been, a religious 
people. That is why toleration first took root in our country. There 
were, to be sure, plenty of religious zealots in England; not just Protes- 
tants and Catholics, but Anabaptists and Huttites, Mennonites, 
Waterlanders, Socinians and men of Rakow. But all together they never 
made up more than a minority. It is a matter for argument whether 
England has even been a Christian country. The English like to be 
baptised, to get married in church, to be buried in consecrated ground; 
they pray in times of peril; they take a mild interest in religious con- 
troversy, and like to clothe the State in religious forms. But they are 
not truly interested in the spiritual life. We must not think of the 
Middle Ages in England as a religious era. It was a time when the priestly 
caste occupied a major role in society and the economy. But the 
universal levity with which the moral law was broken, and ecclesiastical 
sanctions defied, suggests that most healthy men and women did not 
take hell fire seriously. The Church was a profession. It was not, on the 
whole, interested in pastoral and parochial work. Religion in the towns 
was weak. The inhabitants of many country districts were served, if at 
all, by very humble clergy indeed, usually half-educated and often 
wildly unorthodox. Most Englishmen did not even know the principal 
articles of their faith. Anglicanism did something to improve the situa- 
tion in the wealthier country districts, but it was never more than a 



middle-class affair in the towns. Protestantism was a more meaningful 
faith than Catholicism for the English, but only for a minority, and 
perhaps a small one. For about a century (1750-1850) nonconformity 
occupied an important place in English urban life, but again only for a 
minority. When the Irish immigration to England took place in the nine- 
teenth century, Catholic priests were able to secure a comparatively high 
rate of church attendance, though they have always exaggerated it. 
But on the whole it is doubtful whether, at any time in history, more 
than 50 per cent of the English people have attended Sunday services 
regularly, or paid more than lip-service to their church. This is not true 
of many other countries. In the United States, even today, well over 
50 per cent regularly go to services on sabbatical days. In Scotland, 
Ireland and Wales it is likely that, until recent decades, observance was 
the custom of the great majority, and religion played a meaningful role 
in their lives. But for the English the Deity is a social instrument, a mere 
part of the constitution, which has other (and more important) elements. 
Elizabeth, who was, as she never tired of pointing out, 'mere English', 
had the merit to perceive this fact, and act upon it. 

We owe a great deal to this remarkable woman. To be sure, she pre- 
sided over a dazzling galaxy of talent, political, commercial, military, 
naval and artistic. But she herself took all the really important decisions 
- and non-decisions - of her reign, often against the advice of her ablest 
counsellors. It is impossible to read the letters and documents of this 
period, to examine the domestic and foreign political strategy, culminat- 
ing in the defeat of the Armada, to analyse the solutions to the problem 
of the succession, or the religious settlement, without concluding that 
her hand and brain were firmly in charge of the national destiny. She 
was a political genius of a very rare kind, for her inspiration was a sense 
of tolerance, springing from a warm heart and a cool intellect. She 
inherited all her father's will-power, but none of his murderous instincts. 
She loathed killing and cruelty. Her tutor, Roger Ascham, had taught 
her to hate war and violence ; but it was a lesson she did not really need. 
As a young woman she had been in that horrible place, the Tower of 
London, in fear for her life. As a result, she determined to make England 
a country in which moderate, reasonable people could feel safe - even 
engage in controversy, provided their only weapons were words. For 
two centuries the public life of England had been engulfed in a rising 
tide of political and religious murder. The judicial killings had struck at 
kings and archbishops, noblemen and great lawyers, to say nothing of a 
mass of humbler people. Many of the country's greatest talents had been 
destroyed in senseless ignominy on the scaffold. If the fabric of English 
society was to survive, the process had to be stopped; and Elizabeth 



stopped it. What had become a bloody English tradition was firmly 
extinguished ; and it was never really resurrected. 

Elizabeth's personal tragedy was that she, who hated killing anyone, 
was nevertheless obliged by overwhelming pressures and circumstances 
to kill a few. No ruler ever went through greater agonies in signing a 
death-warrant. She fought desperately to spare Mary of Scotland. Her 
contemporaries thought she was mad to be so lenient ; worse, criminal. 
'The Queen's Majesty/ wrote Burghley, 'hath been always a merciful 
lady, and by mercy she hath taken more harm than by justice.' Lord 
Hunsdon put the point more strongly, when she delayed signing Nor- 
folk's death warrant: 

The world knows her to be wise, and surely there cannot be a greater point 
of wisdom than for any to be careful of their own estate, and especially the 
preservation of her own life. How much more needful it is for her Majesty to 
take heed, upon whose life depends a whole commonwealth, the utter ruin of 
the whole country and the utter subversion of religion. And if by negligence 
of womanish pity these things happen, what she hath to answer for to God, 
she herself knows. 

But it was not just womanish pity, though that played a part. Eliza- 
beth had not much religion, but she had a very strong conscience. She 
thought it wrong to kill. She also thought it impolitic, harmful to her 
own reputation as sovereign, and that of the country she ruled. She 
would not, she told Parliament, execute Mary: 

Full grievous is the way that I, who have in my time pardoned so many 
rebels, winked at so many treasons . . . should now be forced to this proceed- 
ing against such a person. What will my enemies not say when it shall be 
spread, that for the safety of herself a maiden Queen could be content to spill 
the blood, even of her own kinswoman ? 

Elizabeth did not kill Mary; on the contrary, she preserved her life for 
nearly two decades, against the will of her subjects. 

Tolerance and a hatred of violence were modern virtues in Elizabeth's 
age; if they have become English characteristics, some of the credit 
must go to her. She was a kind person. Though she never slept with a 
man, there was plenty of love in her heart. Her formal letters to her 
ministers and commanders are often embellished by touching and 
affectionate footnotes, written in her fine, firm hand. Though a lot of 
the romantic mystique of her court was deliberately contrived to suit 
her public purposes, there can be no doubt that the warmth which 
existed between her and her greatest servants was absolutely genuine. 
On his death-bed, Burghley asked his son to thank the Queen for her 
kindness : 



Though she will not be a mother yet she showeth herself by feeding me with 
her own princely hand, as a careful nurse; and if I may be weaned to feed 
myself, I shall be more ready to serve her on the earth; if not I hope to be in 
heaven a servitor for her and God's church. 

The Queen loved, and understood, children. To her young godson she 
sent a copy of her speech to the 1576 Parliament, with these words : 

Boy Jack, 

I have made a clerk write fair my poor words for thine use, as it cannot be 
such striplings have entrance into parliament assembly as yet. Ponder them 
in thy hours of leisure, and play with them till they enter thy understanding; 
so shalt thou hereafter, perchance, find some good fruits hereof when thy 
godmother is out of remembrance; and I do this because thy father was 
ready to serve and love us in trouble and thrall. 

Elizabeth visited the sick; she attended her friends on their deathbeds, 
sometimes staying in their houses and ministering to their wants her- 
self. To the bereaved she sent little notes of condolence. 'My own Crow/ 
she wrote to Lady Norris, whose son had been killed in Ireland, 'harm 
not yourself for bootless help, but show a good example to comfort your 
dolourous yoke-fellow/ She even sent a message of sympathy and reas- 
surance to the wife of a man who had deliberately defied her, and was 
held in the Tower. When she said she loved the people of England - and 
they are not a people whom anyone can easily love - she meant it. The 
real measure of her achievement is that she was able to express this love 
in concrete terms, and impart to her people a taste for the new and 
unfashionable virtues she possessed. So long as the English exist, she 
will not be 'out of remembrance*. 



The Chosen 


IT is a curious fact that the most important debate in English 
political history took place not in the House of Commons but in the 
fifteenth-century parish church of St Mary in Putney. There, on 
28 October 1647, and for the next two weeks, a group of about forty men 
met in informal conclave, and proceeded to invent modern politics - to 
invent, in fact, the public framework of the world in which nearly 3,000 
million people now live. There was no significance in the choice of the 
church; it was simply convenient. The men sat or stood around the bare 
communion table and kept their hats on, as Englishmen had learnt to 
do in the Commons House. The meeting was officially styled the General 
Council of the New Model Army, the force -which had recently annihil- 
ated the armies of King Charles and was now the effective master of the 
entire country. Some of those present were distinguished generals: 
Oliver Cromwell, second-in-command of the army, and its real creator 
and ruler, and Commissary-General Henry Ireton, his brilliant son-in- 
law. Some were gallant regimental commanders, such as Lieutenant- 
Colonel Goffe and Colonel Rainborough, men of humble birth who had 
risen to field-rank in battle. Some were junior officers. Some were 
ordinary soldiers, like Edward Sexby; two are described in the record 
merely as 'Buffe-coate' and 'Bedfordshire Man'. There were three 
civilians, political radicals, or Levellers, who had come to help the 
soldiers put their case. It was a very representative gathering of English- 
men, covering all classes, save the highest, and a wide variety of peace- 
time trades and callings. The verbatim record, kept by the Secretary 
to the General Council, William Clarke, is occasionally garbled (he was 
unused to taking shorthand) and, alas, incomplete; it remained unread, 
buried in the archives of Worcester College, Oxford, for more than 250 
years, until it was examined at the end of the nineteenth century, edited 
and published.* But the ideas flung across that communion table - then 
in all the exciting novelty of their pristine conception - had in the mean- 
time travelled round the world, hurled down thrones and subverted 
empires, and had become the common, everyday currency of political 
exchange. They are still with us. Every major political concept known 

* The Clarke Papers, edited by C.H.Firth, the Camden Society, 1891, Vol. i. Next to 
Rushworth's Historical Collections (8 vols, 1659-1701), The Clarke Papers form the most 
valuable authority for this period, and it is a pity they are not available in a cheap 
paperback. Putney Church, incidentally, is now overshadowed by a huge and hideous 
office block ; across the road is a pub which advertises 'drag* shows. 



to us today, all the assumptions which underlie the thoughts of men in 
the White House, or the Kremlin, or Downing Street, or in presidential 
mansions or senates or parliaments through five continents, were 
expressed or adumbrated in the little church of St Mary. 

Before we examine the debates, it is important to understand why 
they took place in England and why they could only have taken place 
in England. They might never have occurred at all, and if so the world 
would now be a radically different, and much more primitive, place than 
we find it. But certain peculiar developments in English history - 
developments rooted many centuries back, and ultimately resting on the 
geography of England, and the composition of its people - allowed this 
thing to happen ; and so the world is as it is. Let us then trace the genesis 
of the Putney debates. 

The ancient Greeks had begun to explore certain entirely new political 
and scientific concepts when their cities and culture were absorbed in 
the imperialism of Rome. Rome provided order of a sort, but it killed 
creativity. Its empire lay for hundreds of years like a vast and motion- 
less log across the stream of human progress. The Romans were com- 
pilators and codifiers, but they could not invent new thoughts, and they 
successfully inhibited others from doing so. They were lawyers by tem- 
perament and their language was legalistic. They could explore back- 
wards into the origins and precise meanings of existing concepts, but the 
very orderliness of their verbal apparatus - the skill with which it played 
endlessly on the known and finite - locked the doors firmly against the 
unknown and the infinite. Their mental world, like their language, was 
static and in the end degenerate. Their vigorous lawyers 1 republic 
became a soldiers' empire and, in turn, an oriental despotism. As it 
shrank and disintegrated, it embraced a religion from another race of 
lawgivers, the Jews ; and Roman Christianity, drawing its intellectual 
concepts exclusively from a static body of sacred and immutable texts, 
its forms, organisation and discipline from a military empire in decline, 
became the residual legatee of Rome. For a thousand years it lay across 
Europe like a winding-sheet, monopolising education, culture, science, 
and technology, interposing a hieratic class of interpreters between the 
people and such learned texts as it possessed, banning any form of 
empirical inquiry which did not square with its fixed, received notions, 
and limiting its intellectual activities to formal theological exercises, 
which merely played on words and were wholly barren of discoveries. Its 
grip on the world was underpinned by secular societies whose power- 
structure reflected its hierarchy and which had a shared interest in pre- 
serving a comatose and unequal world. Europe was internationalist in 
that Church and State cooperated across frontiers in the extirpation of 



novelty; and it had a common language, Latin, to control knowledge 
and preserve it for the elite. 

It required an extraordinary conjunction of destructive forces to 
shatter this adamantine mould. The ancient Greek knowledge had been 
filtering into western Europe since contact with the transmitting Arabs 
had been established in the eleventh century; and the extinction of 
Byzantium brought volumes of hitherto unknown texts to the West. 
But this was not enough. The use and development of such knowledge 
required a political society in which the free spirit of inquiry could act. 
Roman Christian Europe was a mutual protection system, organised on 
a supranational basis to safeguard the property of the possessing classes, 
those who owned both knowledge, such as it was, and land. It had 
successfully aborted the intellectual revolution of the twelfth century, 
and reimposed its negative philosophy of learning for two long centuries. 
It might have done so again. The Renaissance presented it with a chal- 
lenge, on which the crude, practical genius of Luther seized and, backed 
by the new power of German nationalism, thrust brutally through the 
enveloping mould. He caught both Church and Empire off-balance, in 
disarray; they took too long to perceive the fundamental nature of the 
threat, and acted too late. But the breach could have been sealed: the 
impressive power with which the Counter-Reformation eventually 
organised itself, the ruthlessness with which it acted, leaves little doubt 
that Continental Protestantism could eventually have been extin- 
guished, and the mould universally reimposed. But there was the little 
matter of England, and the English Channel. 

In England the conjunction of forces operating against Roman civili- 
sation was unique. As we have seen, it was from this country that Pela- 
gius had first developed the dynamic, anti-defeatist philosophy of free 
will, and in so doing created a heterodox, nationalist tradition which had 
never been entirely lost. The offshore islanders were the only colony 
which had thrown out their Roman governors. They had received back 
Roman Christianity, but transmuted it into an insular form. They 
occupied a unitary and centralised kingdom, which meant that their 
religion must be identified with the national spirit. Their relations with 
the Continent had always been uneasy and suspicious; they rejected its 
norms, and the Channel allowed them to do so with relative impunity. 
The mutual-protection system of Roman Christian Europe stopped 
short at the walls of Calais. The Reformation in England thus made 
explicit a declaration of independence from the Continent which was 
rooted in a thousand years of political and intellectual development. It 
was carried through, ironically, by the last of the medieval kings, a 
man whose motives and objects were never clearly formulated even to 



himself, but who possessed extraordinary reserves of courage and will- 
power springing from his brutish nature; he had a manager of genius, 
Thomas Cromwell, who flawlessly exploited the resources of an ancient 
institution, Parliament, to anchor the changes firmly in English law and 
tradition ; and the break with the Continent was confirmed and made 
permanent by the old King's matchless daughter, Elizabeth, who in- 
herited all her father's courage but who possessed, too, a wisdom, gentle- 
ness and a sense of balance and tolerance which were completely alien 
to him. All these factors might be called accidental. But there were 
others which made a clash between the English and the Continental 
system inescapable : the vigorous development of the English language, 
which made the cultural monopoly exercised by Latin increasingly 
intolerable ; a xenophobic hatred of priests and priestcraft, which merely 
waited an opportunity to vent itself ; and, above all, a rising conscious- 
ness among the English that they were a people somehow different to all 
others, called to a special destiny. 

The last factor was decisive - the keystone in the Reformation arch. 
It takes enormous energy to change the entire course of world history, 
and such energy cannot be drawn exclusively from physical forces; 
something metaphysical is required too. What sustained the English 
during the Reformation and Counter- Reformation years, what enabled 
them to preserve heterodoxy in England and uphold it on the Continent, 
to defeat the Armada and rip open the world empire of Spain - in short 
to thrust aside the inert log of the Roman heritage and allow the stream 
of progress to flow again - was not just patriotism, or nationalism, but 
racism, the most powerful of all human impulses. The English had come 
to believe they were the chosen people. They could thus answer the 
Continental armoury of faith and superstition with the vehement con- 
viction of divinely inspired rectitude. 

How did the English reach the audacious conclusion that God, having 
found the Jews inadequate for His great purposes, had entrusted the 
island race with the unique role of completing His kingdom on earth ? 
They were not particularly devout. They disliked clergymen, except in a 
purely sacerdotal role. They built splendid churches and cathedrals, but 
did not frequent them except in a spirit of social decorum. On the other 
hand, their island situation had made them natural racists, overbearing 
and aggressive towards strangers, holding their own superiority to the 
rest of mankind to be self-evident. This was fertile soil on which to sow 
the seed of a national mission to reform, or indeed conquer, the world. 
The English would have received such a mandate as willingly from 
Jupiter, or Allah, or even Buddha, as they did from Jehovah. But the 
manner in which inspiration came was characteristic. It arose from the 



devotion of the English to their history, their misunderstanding of 
certain salient facts in it, and their breathtaking ability to rewrite it to 
suit their inclinations and convenience. 

Throughout the Middle Ages they had delighted in manufacturing 
world chronicles in which the English played a prominent role. In the 
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, armed with ancient claims and 
grudges, they had inflicted their historic visions and myths on the hap- 
less French. Quite when they first took note of the fact that they were 
the successor-race to the Jews is impossible to determine. It must have 
occurred, in a significant sense, early in the sixteenth century. It was a 
period prolific in historical writing, much of it highly imaginative ; and 
the trickle of printed books was fast becoming a torrent, spreading 
this knowledge, or half-knowledge, of the past among an ever- 
growing circle of men in positions of authority and influence. 
Henry vm's controversy with Rome gave an enormous impulse to these 
probings into the past. Suddenly, history became politics; records and 
libraries were closely scrutinised for immediate public objects. King 
Arthur made his formidable appearance in the debate with Pope 
Clement. Still more shadowy figures were resurrected or invented to 
prove the unique relationship of England to the Christian community. 
If the English had read Bede they would have found the disappointing 
truth about themselves. But they did not read Bede; they read Gildas 
and Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the successive generations of 
historians who had built on their fantasies. Thus a myth was publicly 
accepted as fact. It took various forms. Some believed Christianity had 
been brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathaea, on the express 
instructions of the Apostles; some thought the agent was St Paul; 
others believed Christ himself had paid a special visit. But all the versions 
had one thing in common: Britain had got the faith directly from the 
apostolic succession - hot, as it were, from the Holy Land - without the 
intermediary of Rome. The popes had had nothing to do with it. As 
Queen Elizabeth herself put it: 'When Austin came from Rome, this our 
realm had bishops and priests therein/ What is more, it was through 
Britain that the Roman Empire had embraced the faith. Constantine 
had been British; his mother Helena was the daughter of the British 
King Coilus. So, wrote Foxe, 'by the help of the British army', Constan- 
tine 'obtained . . . peace and tranquillity to the whole universal Church of 
Christ'. This being so, what special authority - indeed what authority 
at all - could the Pope or any Continental sovereign, spiritual or secular, 
claim over the English ? 

It is, however, important to grasp that this myth was not the property 
of any religious sect ; it was racial rather than theological. Just as the 



Pilgrims of Grace, as well as the Puritans, appealed to Magna Carta, so 
even the staunchest Catholics were confident of England's special role. 
King Philip n, who had certain myths of his own, must have been out- 
raged to hear, at his first court sermon preached in England, by no less a 
papist than Cardinal Pole, that England was 'prima provinciarum quae 
amplexa estfidem Christi 1 - the first country to receive the faith. More- 
over, went on Pole, 'the greatest part of the world fetched the light of 
religion from England'. Mary nodded her head vigorously: she believed 
it too. All the English sects, however they might differ on any other 
matter, were united in assigning a unique and Godly destiny to the 
English : even Laud, anxiously putting back the Reformation clock, was 
to teach that the ecclesia anglicana was the true Church of Peter, pure, 
solitary and undefiled. 

However, it was obvious that this dynamic myth came handiest to 
those who wished to break away from Continental religion, especially 
those who wished to base English Christianity on the broadest possible 
national consensus. Not only did the myth identify the race with the 
national religion, but it enabled God's purpose in choosing the English 
as his race to become perfectly clear: the destruction of Rome and the 
renovation of the entire Christian world. Think of what an aggressive 
and fanatical war politician like Henry v would have done with such a 
commandment ! Equally, the purpose allowed the creation of the most 
unifying force of all, a common enemy: the Papacy, huge and hideous, 
the terrestrial instrument of the Devil, whom God had told the English 
to root out and destroy, together with such secular lieutenants as King 
Philip, and so forth. 

Thus the myth of the chosen race underlay the Elizabethan religious 
settlement and the extraordinary national unity she contrived to main- 
tain. There was not much piety about it. It merely provided a purpose 
and ideological framework for the rank but aimless racism which had 
been growing in England throughout the Middle Ages. In the second 
year of the Queen's reign, John Aylmer, a friend of Ascham, wrote in his 
An Har borow for faithfull and true subjects that England was the virgin 
mother to the second birth of Christ. The English should thank God that 
they were not born French, Germans or Italians (they did not need any 
encouragement). England abounded in good things, and God and his 
angels fought on her side against all her enemies : 

God is English. For you fight not only in the quarrel of your country, but 
also and chiefly in defence of His true religion and of His dear son Christ. 
[England says to her children:] 'God hath brought forth in me the greatest 
and excellentest treasure that He hath for your comfort and all the worlds. 



He would that out of my womb should come that servant of Christ John 
Wyclif, who begat Huss, who begat Luther, who begat the truth. 

The myth crystallised in the huge volumes of Foxe's book which, despite 
its expense and size, had sold 10,000 copies in England before the turn 
of the century, more than enough for every parish church in the country. 
As we have seen, it made a Catholic restoration on Marian lines impos- 
sible. Even more important, it gave a complete rationale for all the 
characteristic features of Elizabethan England: the Queen herself, a 
national Church based on a degree of tolerance, the government's foreign 
policy, the spread of printing, education, and the use of the vernacular 
as the language of culture and science.* 

Foxe and many other writers stressed the unique role of Elizabeth in 
the national mission : she was Deborah, a virtuous and virginal creature, 
the special spiritual servant of God divinely appointed to safeguard true 
religion and lead the English in victory over God's enemies. But such 
warfare, said Foxe, was waged not by rulers alone but by all classes of 
the chosen race. He proved from English history that one essential test 
of a people's fidelity to God was their willingness to rebel when rulers 
were misled by corrupt advisers. In his tales of the Marian years he 
exalted especially the working-class martyrs, including women : they, as 
well as the rich and educated, had a part to play. He related the case of 
Alice Driver, who told her persecutors : 

I was an honest poor man's daughter, never brought up in the university as 
you have been, but I have driven the plough before my father many a time, I 
thank God. Yet notwithstanding, in the defence of God's truth and in the 
cause of my master Christ, by his grace I will set my foot against the foot of 
any of you all in the defence and maintainence of the same . . . 

Religion was thus a leveller of the classes, indeed of the sexes; all should 
be united in the national work of God. Foxe underlined the importance 
of the English standing together: his final words, in the last edition he 
prepared for the press before his death, was an eloquent plea for mutual 
tolerance in line with the Queen's religious policy : 

And if there cannot be an end of our disputing and contending one against 
an other, yet let there be a moderation in our affections . . . because God hath 
so placed us Englishmen here in one commonwealth, also in one Church, as in 
one ship together, let us not mangle and divide the ship, which being divided 
perisheth, but every man serve in his order with diligence, wherein he is 

* The best and fullest analysis of the influence of the historic myth on English religion 
and politics is William Haller: Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the Elect Nation (London, 



The mission, needless to say, presupposed an active and aggressive 
foreign policy, conducted in strict accordance with Protestant (i.e. 
English) interests. Foxe told his Good Friday congregation at St Paul's 
in 1570 that, though England might be weak and her enemies powerful, 
they would collapse like the walls of Jericho : let the rich and the mighty 
beware, the great Turk, the great Caliph of Damascus, the great Caliph 
of Old Rome, 'and all other cruel tyrants and potentates of this world 
which have abused their sword to the destruction of Christ's saints'. The 
English pirates and adventurers who, in Elizabeth's reign, were begin- 
ning to carry out the national mission all over the globe accepted Foxe's 
words as the literal truth. Drake took a copy of the great work with him 
when he set off to circumnavigate the world in 1577 : he read the more 
sententious passages to his sullen Spanish prisoners, and, on rest days, 
coloured the pictures with his own hand. After his victory at Cadiz in 
1587, almost his first act was to write to Foxe to thank him for his 

Yet the mission was cultural as well as military. John Jewel had 
pointed out that English was the special language of Godliness; to 
which Foxe added that the invention of printing was a miracle, expressly 
performed by the Lord to complete the reformation of his Church : 

How many printing-presses there be in the world, so many block-houses 
there be against the high castle of St Angelo, so that either the Pope must 
abolish knowledge and printing or printing at length will root him out. 

This stress on the divine value of the printed word, the imperative 
command to disseminate the truth as rapidly and widely as possible, 
brought the medieval values and defences tumbling down. Religion was 
the Word - the Bible - and the Word was English. The national lan- 
guage swept away Latin as the vernacular of doctrine and piety, and 
rapidly began to invade other spheres hitherto protected from public 
intrusion by the dead culture. Extraordinary national energies were thus 
unleashed, most strikingly in the theatre, but in every other branch of 
literature and knowledge. At a humble political level, the Government 
poured forth or inspired innumerable pamphlets defending its actions 
and lambasting its domestic and foreign enemies, many of them from the 
busy pen of Sir William Cecil himself. Puttenham's^lrteo/ English Poesie 
and Sidney's Defence of Poesie justified the abandonment of Latin as the 
prime vehicle for poetic expression. The glorification of England, her 
countryside, her people and her history, was the central theme of an 
enormous literary output. A third of Shakespeare's plays concentrated 
on historical themes: some on Roman history reconstructed for English 
purposes, ten on English history alone. But there were also Sir Thomas 


Smith's Commonwealth of England, Hakluyt's Principal Navigations of 
the English mariners and explorers, Camden's Remains . . . Concerning 
Britaine and his Britannia, Stow's Survay of London, Daniel's Historic 
of England, and, in the next reign, to cap them all, Ralegh's gigantic 
History of the World. The breaking of the Latin stranglehold brought 
into play whole new classes and categories of men, most notably the 
humble London craftsmen who were creating the precise instruments of 
navigation, on \vhich the scientific revolution, and ultimately the 
industrial revolution, would be based. 

It was, indeed, the navigators - men whose lives and fortunes 
depended absolutely on the accuracy of their instrumentation and 
maps, and therefore on the free flow of knowledge and ideas, and the 
progress of experimental philosophy - who were most humbly grateful 
for the opportunity Elizabethan England gave to the new culture, and 
most strident in proclaiming the doctrine of the chosen race. One of 
them, John Davys, put the English ideology in its extreme form: 

There is no doubt but that we of England are this saved people, by the 
eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these 
Gentiles in the sea, to those Isles and famous Kingdoms, there to preach the 
peace of the Lord: for are not we only set upon Mount Zion to give light to all 
the rest of the world? Have we not the true handmaid of the Lord to rule 
us ... ? It is only we, therefore, that must be these shining messengers of the 
Lord, and none but we. 

Expressed thus crudely, the doctrine cannot have found universal 
acceptance in a society which, especially towards the end of the reign, 
was rapidly acquiring an astonishing degree of intellectual sophistica- 
tion. It ill accords, for instance, with much of Shakespeare's writing, 
especially his subtle and emancipated view of the national character. 
But if many, including no doubt the Queen, declined to swallow the 
myth entire, all absorbed a portion of it. There were a number of great 
minds whose Christianity was heavily qualified, who were unavowed 
Deists, agnostics, even suspected to be atheists: men like Ralegh and 
Francis Bacon. But each found a facet of the myth to suit his tastes and 
convictions. It was, in one manifestation or another, irresistible. More- 
over, distasteful though it appears in retrospect, it had a kind of his- 
torical necessity. It acted like a great engine, which lifted the nation up 
and beyond the gravitational pull of the dead medieval world, and 
placed it safely in free orbit. Once embraced by the nation, the myth 
ensured that there could be no return to the two stagnant millennia 
Rome had inaugurated. Mankind had achieved a kind of liberation, and 
was being carried forward on a self-sustaining current of progress, which 



events might decelerate but could not halt, let alone reverse. The 
current is still driving us along, ever faster. 

The management of such a kingdom and people, pullulating with newly 
released energies, anxious to embark on a grandiose, almost manic, world 
mission, posed extraordinary problems ; and it is a tribute to Elizabeth's 
unique qualities as a stateswoman that she at least contained, if she 
could not solve them. Such a people threatened always to break through 
the normal bonds of society. There were other strains, too. Prices had 
been rising consistently since the 15305, but many forms of income, 
including the Crown's, had failed to keep pace; sadly, and despite the 
most stringent economy, the Queen was forced into regular sales of 
Crown land ; she lived heavily on capital towards the end of her reign, 
and at her death the monarchy was much weaker financially than at her 
accession. Her dependence on provision by Parliament correspondingly 
increased, and the House of Commons required a growing degree of 
conciliation on the part of Government. After Cecil went to the Lords, 
the quality of Commons management declined; his son was by no means 
as astute. The Queen's majestic personality right to the end filled many 
yawning gaps in the Government's armoury; she personally upheld the 
consensus, and her last domestic speech to Parliament, the 'Golden 
Speech', was venerated (as we shall see) by old MPs a generation after 
her death. But the country suffered grievously in her final decade: 
appalling weather brought bad harvests, trade was in recession, the war 
with Spain dragged on at mounting cost. The huge transfers in the 
ownership of property over the last 70 years had altered the structure 
of landed society at a speed unusual even in England. Elizabeth, con- 
tinuing Tudor policies of holding the nobility in check, had deliberately 
kept the Lords small ; the bulk of the landed wealth therefore passed 
into the Commons. The country gentry had begun to invade the borough 
seats early in the fifteenth century: they paid their own parliamentary 
expenses, for one thing, and for another their power in the neighbour- 
hood was usually so great that the boroughs had no alternative but to 
elect them.* By the end of Elizabeth's reign the Commons was a gentry 

* See J.S. Roskell: The Commons in the Parliament 0/1422 (Manchester, 1954), an( * 
English Historical Documents, Vol. iv, 1327-1485, edited by A.R. Myers (London, 1969), 
pp. 475-6. In the sixteenth century outsiders who sat for boroughs normally paid their 
own expenses; and by 1515 even the knights of the shires had begun to 'entertain' (i.e. 
bribe) electors. In 1601 James Harrington, MP for Rutland, calculated that membership 
would cost him 200. The subject is discussed in detail in J.E. Neale: The Elizabethan 
House of Commons {London, 1963), Chapter xvi. By the second half of the seventeenth 
century it was clearly most unusual for any member to be paid, for Aubrey notes that 
Andrew Marvell's 'native towne of Hull loved him so well that they elected him for their 


preserve, and the gentry were the richest and most influential class in 
the country. 

This was the royal estate James Stuart of Scotland inherited, though 
he was devastatingly unaware of its drawbacks. He was received with 
some enthusiasm, as a Protestant from birth, as a male, who had 
already guaranteed his own male succession with two sons, and as an 
experienced ruler. The enthusiasm \vas reciprocated. James had been 
King almost since birth, but had led a miserable existence buffeted by 
rival factions of the Scots maffia-nobility, his life frequently in danger, 
his purse usually empty, hectored by intolerant Calvinist clergymen, 
and with the meagre satisfaction of presiding over a semi-barbarous and 
bankrupt pocket-state on the outer fringes of civilisation. Now he was to 
take over an august, ancient and secure throne, a dignified and hierar- 
chical Church, a treasury bursting with gold, a cultured and splendid 
nobility, a brilliant court, a country where agriculture and the arts, 
learning, science and trade flourished as never before; or so he thought. 
He even inherited the magical gift of touching for the King's Evil, which 
Elizabeth had treated as a traditional joke, but which delighted his 
superstitious mind. 

Those w r ho decry the influence of personality on history find it hard 
to argue away the speed, the perverse skill, and the absolute decisive- 
ness with which the Stuarts demolished their English heritage. The 
English had always been devoted to the monarchy, they revered strong 
government, they were profoundly attached to the law, tradition and 
established usages, they loathed abrupt change, they had willingly 
surrendered to the Crown a monopoly of violence - no monarch could 
conceivably have asked for more. Moreover, early in his reign James was 
presented with an astonishing stroke of luck, the only one the Stuarts 
ever had. The discovery that Catholic conspirators, master-minded by 
Jesuits, were planning to detonate King, Lords and Commons in one 
gigantic explosion was a patriotic scenario which would have made even 
the fertile Burghley gasp in admiration ; moreover it was true, and could 
be proved. Nothing could be more calculated to bind the King to the 
country's affections, and emphasise the common humanity, peril, and 
solidarity of all estates of the realm. It was a gift beyond computation, 
an event which could be, indeed was, celebrated annually to refresh the 
minds of all. 

Yet in less than forty years the nation had been driven to armed 

representative in Parliament, and gave him an honourable pension to main-taine him*. In 
1677, in an attempt to resist court patronage, MPs tried unsuccessfully to revive the 
ancient statutes for the payment of Members, the last time the topic was debated for 
200 years. 



rebellion. And the only problem which confronts the historian is why it 
did not occur sooner. Everything James did, and everything he omitted 
to do, was certain to evoke protest. He was not, to begin with, the kind 
of man whom even the most infatuated English royalist could respect. 
Here is his portrait by one of his courtiers, Sir Anthony Weldon: 

He was of a middle stature, more corpulent though in his clothes than in 
his body, yet fat enough, his cloathes being ever made large and easie, the 
doublets quilted for stiletto proofe, his breeches in great pleites and full 
stuffed. He was naturally of a timorous disposition, which was the reason of 
his quilted doublets: his eyes large were rowling after any stranger come into 
his presence. His beard was very thin. His tongue too large for his mouth, 
which ever made him speak full in the mouth, and made him drink very 
uncomely, as if eating his drink, which came out into the cup at each side of 
his mouth. 

His skin was as soft as Taffeta Sarsenet, which felt so, because he never 
washt his hands, only rubbed his fingers, and slightly with the wet end of a 
napkin. It is true, he drank very often, which was rather out of a custom than 
any delight, and his drink was of that kind of strength as Frontinack, Canary, 
High Country wine, Tent wine and Scottish ale, which had he not a very 
strong brain, might have daily been overtaken, although he seldom drank at 
one time, above four spoonfuls, many times not above one or two. 

James's language was appalling, and his obscene jokes brought ill- 
concealed shudders from a court which was by no means squeamish. 
Elizabeth had occasionally used very direct language, to a purpose; but 
she was essentially a woman who valued modesty and decorum, who 
had a strong sense of her dignity, gracious and courtly in her manners, 
soft in speech, abstemious in all things, a very regal lady indeed, who 
expected high standards at court, especially towards her ladies - indeed 
ruthlessly punished those who failed to observe them. All these qualities 
the English have always expected and applauded in their monarchs. 
By contrast, James was a loutish savage. When hunting, he liked to 
plunge his bandy legs into the stag's bowels, so that an old Elizabethan, 
Sir John Harington, commented: 'The manners made me devise the 
beasts were pursuing the sober creation/ The French ambassador 
sneered: 'When he wishes to assume the language of a king his tone is 
that of a tyrant, and when he condescends he is vulgar/ Unlike 
Elizabeth, he hid himself from the public ; told they merely wished to see 
his face, he replied : 'God's wounds ! I will pull down my breeches and they 
shall also see my arse/ Not merely the public, but very large numbers of 
influential local figures found they had no access to the King. Elizabeth 
had taken a lot of trouble to get to know personally everyone who 
mattered. She scrutinised the lists of JPs throughout the kingdom, 



ticking off those she wanted reappointed; she claimed she knew every- 
one of them. James knew no one outside the narrow court and govern- 
ment circle; and within it, instead of carefully balancing factions, as she 
had done, he flung himself literally into the arms of successive favourites, 
first the Scotsman, Carr, then Villiers, whom he made Duke of Bucking- 
ham. James loathed women. He delighted in getting the young court 
ladies drunk, and seeing them collapse in vomit at his feet.* He would 
sit there, laughing, while he fiddled with his genitals, a distasteful habit 
which everyone noticed. It was, indeed, impossible to ignore his homo- 
sexuality, for it was displayed in company, James planting slobbering 
kisses on the lips of George Villiers and fingering his body. His letters 
to his 'sweet child and wife' Villiers, signed 'your dear old dad and 
gossip', at least were private; not so the defence which the King made 
to the Lords of the Council of the earldom given to the youth, and in 
a speech where he justified homosexuality by blasphemy: 

You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone 
else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak on my own 
behalf, and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the 
same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my 

The English have always loathed homosexuality in public men, and 
punished it savagely. More remarkable, in James's case, was that he 
evoked the disdain of the French ambassador, who had acquired a high 
degree of sexual tolerance at Henri iv's court. 

The King [ he wrote] . . . has made a journey to Newmarket, as a certain 
other sovereign once did to Capri. He takes his beloved Buckingham with 
him, wishes rather to be his friend than king, and to associate his name to the 
heroes of friendship in antiquity. Under such specious titles he endeavours to 
conceal scandalous doings, and because his strength deserts him for these, he 
feeds his eyes where he can no longer content his other sense. The end of all 
is ever the bottle. 

Of course knowledge of these doings was confined to a comparatively 
close circle, though gossip inevitably spread. What could not be con- 
cealed was James's atrocious treatment of leading public figures, and the 
growing evidence of vice and corruption in high places. His deliberate 

* Sir John Harington (Elizabeth's 'Boy Jack') described in uproarious detail the dis- 
graceful orgy at Theobalds in 1606, in honour of James's royal brother-in-law, Christian of 
Denmark. 'King James* Court/ wrote Aubrey, 'was so far from being civill to woemen, 
that the Ladies, nay the Queen herself, could hardly pass by the King's apartment with- 
out receiving some Affront.' For a hostile portrait of James see J.P. Kenyon : The Stuarts 
(London, 1967); and for a more sympathetic one, David Mathew: James I (London, 




destruction of Ralegh turned a highly unpopular monopolist into a 
national hero. It was said at the time, and believed, and we now know it 
to be true, that James of set purpose leaked the details of Ralegh's last 
expedition to the Spanish authorities, and so ensured its failure. His 
execution of the old gallant and scholar was thus cold-blooded murder. 
James even planned a public insult to the nation he ruled, for he offered 
to hand Ralegh over to the King of Spain so he could be hanged in a 
public square in Madrid; but even the Spaniards drew back at this. 
Ralegh ended his world history with an eloquent salute to Death the 
Avenger, no doubt with the hated James in mind, though in fact it 
made an apt comment on his son Charles : 

O eloquent, just and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast 
persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world 
hath flattered, thou only hath cast out of the world and despised ! 

James had been educated, after a fashion; but it was the antique 
Latin learning of the medieval world. Such as it was, he was proud of it, 
and he was bitterly and vengefully disappointed when it failed to cut 
any ice with the exponents of the sophisticated new learning he found 
in England. 'His Majesty rather asked counsel of the time past than of 
the time to come/ noted Bacon. Bacon offered exceptionally shrewd 
advice, but the vain King shrank from contact with a man so manifestly 
his intellectual superior; he preferred to act the role of learned father- 
figure to ignorant young phUistines like Carr and Villiers. His only 
intellectual friendship was with the Spanish ambassador, Gondomar, 
who had a similar schoolman's background, and with whom the King 
muttered lengthily in Latin syllogisms. James, indeed, feared the new 
learning; like the popes, he thought it subversive. Elizabeth had not 
censored a single work of learning, education or science. Under James, 
and still more under his son, it became increasingly difficult to get 
anything new published. Some of the central works of Ralegh, Bacon 
and Coke had to wait until the parliamentary resurrection of 1640 to 
see the light. James failed to stop Ralegh's History of the World, which 
indeed became, to his fury, a best-seller; but he confiscated many of 
Ralegh's manuscripts as Charles did those of Coke, his officers ran- 
sacking the old judge's house as he lay on his death-bed.* James dis- 

* In 1631, when Charles heard Coke was planning to write a book about Magna Carta, 
he forbade publication. In the seventeenth century, Magna Carta was regarded as an 
anti-executive instrument. Clarendon, perhaps lying, relates that when the Commons 
'with all humility, mentioned the law and Magna Charta, Cromwell told them, their 
magnafarta should not control his actions'. For making the same joke in 1667 Lord Chief 
Justice Keeling was attacked in the Commons as 'thought to be tending to arbitrary 
government in the judicature'. 



solved the Society of Antiquaries, for even the exploration of the past 
he believed fraught with peril to the static, immobile society he wished 
to establish. 

The Stuarts thus set their faces against the whole dynamic trend of 
English development, and vainly sought to arrest in flight a projectile 
hurtling into the future. More than this, they seemed to possess an 
unerring instinct for wounding the deepest feelings and prejudices of 
the English. The ending of the war with Spain w r as welcome; not so the 
project of a Spanish marriage, which necessarily involved, as all but 
James recognised, fundamental concessions to the Catholic, Continental 
interest. The ludicrous expedition of Charles and Buckingham to court 
the Infanta not only humiliated the English but cost them many of the 
Crown Jewels : the great ruby which Henry vni had seized from Becket's 
shrine, and which had once rested on the bosom of Queen Mary, vanished 
into the eager palm of an Escurial courtier. Relations with the Vatican 
were restored. The treacherous massacre of English settlers by the 
Dutch at Amboyna, which received feverish publicity in England, went 
unavenged (until Cromwell came). Ralegh's 'heroical design of invading 
and possessing America' was frustrated, indeed State support of all 
overseas adventures was withdrawn, and James even tried to wind up 
the Virginia Company, whose Treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, he hated ; if 
private enterprise continued the Elizabethan traditions, it was in the 
teeth of opposition from James and his son. In 1633 Charles even went 
so far as to forbid English ships to enter the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, 
government and court society were rocked by repeated scandals. Carr's 
wife was convicted of murder by poison, but merely exiled to the 
country. Lord Audley was sentenced to death for 'sodomy, unnatural 
adultery and incest' (he was also a papist). The Lord Treasurer, and then 
the Lord Chancellor, were convicted of corruption. Judges were dis- 
missed for refusing to give verdicts to the Government. James's relations 
with Parliament finally broke down in 1611; no Stuart king ever re- 
established them, except for a brief moment in 1660-1. 

No wonder that the English, in a growing mood of national humilia- 
tion - a kind of pious agony for their reputation and past - turned to the 
memory of Elizabeth's time. Her accession day, 17 November, was 
celebrated with bonfires and pointed allusions to the present. As Bishop 
Goodman, a fanatical Stuart supporter (and eventually a papist), had 
to admit : 

. . . after a few years, when we had experience of a Scottish government . . . 
the Queen did seem to revive; then was her memory much magnified - such 
ringing of bells, such public joy and sermons in commemoration of her, the 



picture of her tomb painted in many churches and in effect more solemnity 
and joy in memory of her coronation than was for the coming in of King 

Her 'Golden Speech', in various texts, was read and remembered, a form 
of subversion the Stuarts could not very well censor; nor could thev 
prevent the growth of a popular Elizabethan industry.* It found expres- 
sion in the splendid tribute to the infant Queen in the epilogue of Shake- 
speare's last play, Henry VIII; and in a play about the Queen by 
Thomas Heywood, printed in 1605, and because of its immense popu- 
larity later turned first into prose and then into heroic verse. Both 
James and Charles must have become sick and tired of the very name of 
Elizabeth, who seemed to have a mortmain on the affection and loyalty 
of their subjects. Where they could suppress, they did so. Sir Anthony 
Weldon's court memoirs, with their pointed references to Elizabethan 
glories, could not be published; nor could Fulke Greville's Life of 
Sidney, with its references to the 'decrepit' and 'effeminate' age of the 
Stuarts. There were many other examples. But the Elizabethan image - 
powered by the dynamic force with which the English invest their past 
traditions as instruments of the present and future - boiled beneath the 
surface, and burst into dramatic life when Charles, his government in 
ruins, finally summoned the Long Parliament in the autumn of 1640. 
These Parliament men saw themselves, indeed were, reincarnated 
Elizabethans. It is no accident that Cromwell's mother, his wife, and his 
favourite daughter were all called Elizabeth ; that he referred constantly 
to 'Elizabeth of famous memory'; that he saw himself, in power, in 
some humble sense as her rightful successor. Nor is it coincidence that 
the Long Parliament, once met, unanimously appointed her anniversary 
as a day of solemn fasting, humiliation and prayer. In the morning, at 
St Margaret's, Westminster, the preacher, Cornelius Burges, urged the 
Lords and Commons: 'Remember and consider that this very day . . . 
eighty-two years sithence began a new resurrection of this kingdom from 
the dead/ And in the afternoon they were told by Stephen Marshall: 
'This day eighty-two years ago the Lord set up his gospel among us/ 
England was God's chosen people: and Parliament, on behalf of the 
English, should 'enter into a solemn covenant with the Lord'. It was the 
recovery of the patriotic English spirit. 

* The speech was reprinted in January 1642, immediately after Charles's attempt to 
bully Parliament, and again in March 1648 on the eve of the Second Civil War. Both 
James and Charles made clumsy efforts to appeal to the memory of Elizabeth, but her 
magic did not work for them. See C.V. Wedgwood: Oliver Cromwell and the Elizabethan 
Inheritance (Neale Lecture, 1970). 



English history is a continuum ; it follows certain decisive and recurrent 
patterns with enormous tenacity, even though they may be submerged 
for decades. It ultimately always rejects the alien. The Stuart kingship 
was an aberration. Its destruction was inevitable. It operated against a 
national consensus so solid and powerful that, in rejecting Stuartism, the 
English found themselves acting against some of their deepest instincts 
and taking a giant leap into a wholly unknown future. The Great 
Rebellion, as it is so misleadingly called, was not primarily about 
religion, or class, or the institutions of monarchy, or the powers of 
Parliament, or taxation and the rights of property, or the protection of 
the subject against the Crown - although it was, certainly, concerned 
with all of these things. At heart it was a reassertion of national self- 
respect, of pride and patriotism; it was an expression of the love the 
English feel for each other and their country. The Stuarts had betrayed 
the national mission; the English would redeem it. We cannot read 
Milton's magnificent pamphlet, Of reformation touching Church dis- 
cipline, without realising that his exalted language, breathtaking in its 
audacity, is inspired not by the mere details of Church management, but 
by an overwhelming vision of the national destiny. The Monarchy had 
ceased to be the focus and cynosure of the country's attention. It no 
longer embodied or represented anything; it had abdicated through 
folly, and the trust had been taken up, of necessity, by Parliament. 
What, then, must Parliament do? Milton had no doubts: it was to lead 
the chosen people in the Lord's business. The divine purpose, he wrote, 
was moving towards its fulfilment; the people of England, having often 
served as its agents before, were to serve again in the next advance. 
England had been appointed by God 'to blow the evangelic trumpet to 
the nations'. With all the world to choose from, God 'hath yet ever had 
this island under the special indulgent eye of his providence'. Then, in 
an unforgettable phrase: the English have the glory and prerogative to 
be 'the first asserts of every great vindication'. England must not forget 
'her precedence of teaching nations how to live'. Now that God is again 
decreeing 'some new and great period in His Church, even to the reform- 
ing of reformation itself, what does He then but reveal Himself to His 
Englishmen ; I say as His manner is, first to us'. 

The England on which Milton looked in 1640 seemed in ruins. It was 
spiritually, morally and physically bankrupt. It had lost its soul, its 
international credit, its domestic stability, its position of paramountcy 
in the British Isles. All the ancient, familiar landmarks had gone. The 
status of the nobility had been undermined by the reckless and shameful 
sale of honours. Between 1603 and 1629 alone, sales of peerages, mostly 
to courtiers of little standing, brought in over 620,000. Elizabeth's 



careful husbanding of the distinction conferred to rank by its rarity 
had been entirely abandoned : James sold knighthoods until no man who 
valued his dignity wanted one, and his son fined gentlemen 173,537 in 
five years for declining to take them up. This, in turn, devalued the 
Monarchy, which was after all the mere summit of a pyramid whose 
lower orders were becoming meaningless. Both James and his son found 
themselves obliged to insist on, even to define, the nature of kingship ; 
something Elizabeth never had to do. Definition provoked counter- 
definition, controversy: a mystery based on a consensus became a 
matter of public argument. And what argument, on the King's side! 
The best Charles's cloudy mind could do, in explaining his theory of 
government to Bishop Juxon, was : 

As for the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as any- 
body whatsoever; but I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists in 
having government, those laws by which their lives and goods may be most 
their own. It is not their having a share in the Government, that is nothing 
appertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things. 

But the whole development of English political society had shown that 
a subject and a sovereign were not clean different things : they were part 
of the same mystical body, they worked in conjunction, they were 
indivisible. 'I reign with your loves,' the old Queen had said. Curiously 
enough, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, the King's grim instru- 
ment, grasped the point that the State could not be analysed without 
peril. As he told the Council of the North when he was installed as its 
President: Tor whatever he be which ravels forth into questions the 
right of a king and a people shall never be able to weave them up again 
into the comeliness and order he found them/ King and Parliament had 
been a seamless garment ; now it was wrenched into hostile components. 
In the Church the consensus had gone, too. Perhaps its last act was the 
great translation of the Bible, a work in which divines of all tendencies 
gloriously cooperated. Thereafter, under royal propulsion, the hierarchy 
moved steadily to the prelatical Right, closer and closer to Rome. 
Elizabeth's policy of keeping religion out of politics was reversed. The 
vast majority of Englishmen, clinging sensibly to the central position 
on which the Elizabethan Church rested, found themselves labelled 
Puritans or Presbyterians. They were in fact Anglicans, driven to 
oppose bishops simply by the Romanising of the episcopate. Arch- 
bishop Laud and Charles may have been sincere when they claimed they 
had no intention of submitting to Rome, but that was the logic of all 
their actions. Laud's creation of a judicial empire for his church was a 
carbon-copy of the Hildebrandine programme against which the English 



nation had struggled, in the end successfully, for centuries. The Refor- 
mation was being put into reverse. Charles's attempt to impose a Roman- 
style system on the Scots not only brought about his physical ruin ; it 
was a clear indication to the English that he intended to put the clock 
back in every respect. Laud was already doing it. Even before James 
died, a decree of 1624 forbade the printing or importation of any book 
dealing with religion, Church government or affairs of State without 
previous approval of the authorities ; in 1637 Laud got a Star Chamber 
decree forbidding the printing, reprinting or import of any book without 
his licence. Unauthorised printers were pilloried and whipped, and 
leading dissenters, such as Prynne, mutilated. Characteristically, Laud 
banned the reissue of Foxe's great work, the book Englishmen most 
venerated next to the Bible. And it was significant, too, that when, in 
1637, a writer applied to Charles for permission to reprint a poem he had 
written on the Gunpowder Plot, he was refused: 'We are not so angry 
with the papists now as we were 20 years ago/ It was quite clear to the 
English that Laud was planning to negotiate new links with Rome : his 
policies were moving irresistibly in that direction, the Mass was being 
said openly in London and else\vhere, and Charles himself was becoming 
not so much Head of the Church, as a mere member of it, as his medieval 
predecessors had been, and as Continental sovereigns still were. 

In government the consensus had gone completely. The State was 
bankrupt. Royal revenues had risen only threefold in the last century, 
while prices had gone up more than four times. Under Charles and his 
father, the sale of royal lands had accelerated. Neither of them had the 
remotest idea of the value of money, or how to manage what resources 
they possessed. They distributed gifts and favours worth 3 million at 
least to the peerage alone. They turned the monopoly system, already 
causing disquiet under Elizabeth, into a national scandal, but to little 
profit to themselves ; Pym told Parliament, for instance, that the wine 
monopoly had raised 360,000 a year, but Charles had got less than 
30,000 of it. Attempts to bring in outside financial advisers, like the 
City magnate Lionel Cranfield, merely led to fresh scandals. When 
Charles tried to finance himself by raising money from City syndicates, 
he ended by driving them to bankruptcy, as Edward in had done nearly 
three centuries before. He could not get money legally through parlia- 
mentary authorisation because he would not admit Parliament's role in 
the Government consensus ; he would not admit that there had to be a 
consensus. He tried to raise taxes illegally but failed - after all, Parlia- 
ment had come into existence precisely to ensure that taxes could, in 
practice, be collected; that was what the Commons House was for. 
Without Parliament there was no prospect of the Crown actually getting 



the money, whatever the courts might be persuaded to say. Ship money 
raised anger and opposition, but increasingly less cash and eventually 
less than the cost of collection. So Charles in despair turned to England's 
enemies abroad. He got a little money from Spain, in return for sinister 
services rendered. He even appealed to the Pope. How the old Pontiff 
must have laughed! When, he asked, had Charles been born? Didn't he 
know that the popes did not give money, they took it ? 

The judicial consensus had gone. Devoted as the English were to their 
ancient system, they saw it disintegrate before their eyes. The common 
law courts were downgraded or bypassed, and their judges dismissed or 
terrorised. The prerogative courts, which the Tudors had so skilfully 
used to secure for the Crown a monopoly of violence and emphasise 
national unity, were turned into divisive forces, monstrous instruments 
of tyranny, which had escaped wholly from statutory control. Moreover, 
these courts defended themselves from critics with a savagery from 
which no Englishman, whatever his status, was safe. In 1638, for alleged 
slander of the Star Chamber, a crime unknown to the common law or 
statute, Sir Thomas Wiseman was fined 10,000 with 7,000 damages, 
deprived of his baronetcy, degraded from the order of knighthood, 
had his ears cut off, was pilloried, and was sentenced to imprisonment 
during the King's pleasure. When the law not merely fails to guarantee 
the safety of life and property, but directly threatens both, the subject is 
absolved from obedience to it, and civil society collapses. 

This, indeed, is what men felt by 1640, and not just in an individual 
but in a collective, national sense. If men could make a contract with 
God, their relationship with the King, with the State, was similarly con- 
tractual: if the King defaulted by failing to provide the services of 
government, the contract lapsed, and a new one must be made on a 
more stringent basis. What was the prime service of government? The 
defence of the realm. It was here that Charles's failure was most evident. 
The years 1629-40 were the last period of prerogative government in this 
country, and it was a total fiasco. James had lamentably failed to defend 
the Protestant interest in Germany; Charles abandoned it in France, 
after the humiliation of La Rochelle. Thereafter England had no influ- 
ence on the Continent. The Elizabethan command of the seas - even the 
narrow seas - was abandoned. In 1631 Turkish pirates raided the Irish 
and Cornish coasts with impunity, carrying off many of the King's 
subjects into slavery. The warships Charles planned to build with his 
ship money were intended merely to enforce respect for the King's 
titles in the Channel, not to reactivate Elizabethan policies. By 1639, in 
return for cash, Charles was transporting the wages of Spanish troops 
fighting in the Netherlands across English territory, to avoid Dutch sea 



power - a curious role for an English sovereign. The thing came to light 
when a scrimmage developed between Dutch and Spanish ships in 
English territorial waters, and the Dutch pursued the beaten Spanish 
ashore, without interference or protest from the English authorities. 
The English were outraged, not so much at the insult as at the lack of 
response : it was the first point on which Parliament wished to question 
the King when it was at last summoned. 

The ultimate humiliation was the loss of English paramountcy at 
home. Charles tried to enforce his will on the Scots, and not only failed 
but was decisively beaten; a Scottish army occupied Northumberland 
and many north-east to\vns, and Charles could bar their further pro- 
gress south only by handing over large sums of money, which he did 
not possess. That the English should live to see 'such beggarly snakes put 
out their horns', should be at the mercy of such 'giddy-headed gawks' and 
'brutish bedlamites', seemed intolerable. But if the English feared and 
hated the Scots, they feared and hated the Irish still more : and it was 
the Irish, by rising in revolt, who finally demolished Stuart absolutism. 
Reports reached London that the Irish Catholics had risen en masse 
and butchered all Protestants; that there was no secular power left in 
Ireland to restrain them, and that they would shortly be in England. 
The Irish revolt was the unexpected blow w ? hich turned an economic 
recession, which had been gathering force, into a catastrophic slump, the 
worst the oldest inhabitant could remember. It struck the most ad- 
vanced part of England, the south-east, and especially the cloth trade, 
with bewildering severity. Enormous deputations of people, many 
thousand strong, led by municipal officials and local gentry, marched on 
London with petitions and demands for redress, hysterical calls for 
action. The slump must have led to a change of government in any 
event ; in conjunction with other factors it brought a change of regime. 

What men found increasingly difficult to believe was that the calami- 
ties affecting England were a pure conjunction of chance: no conceiv- 
able degree of ineptitude on the part of Charles and his ministers, they 
felt, could have brought about such national ruin in every department 
of State. It must be a conspiracy. The impression was formed- and on the 
face of it there was plenty of evidence - that Charles, Strafford and Laud 
were engaged in a deliberate operation to destroy English liberties and 
the Protestant religion and install instead a Catholic absolutist mon- 
archy of a Continental type. The understanding with Spain, the nego- 
tiations with Rome, the impoverishment of the Protestant heart-land 
of London and the south-east, on which the power of the Tudor consen- 
sus had always rested, all pointed in one direction. All over Europe, 
constitutional systems with an ancient medieval basis were being over- 



thrown in the interests of tyranny : the Cortes in Castile and Aragon had 
gone, Richelieu had destroyed the Estates-General in France, Gustavus 
Adolphus had killed the Riksdag in Sweden. Was the English Parlia- 
ment the next to go? One of Charles's own courtier-MPs had issued a 
direct warning in 1628 : 

To move not His Majesty with trenching on his prerogatives, lest you 
bring him out of love with parliaments ... In all Christian kingdoms you know 
that parliaments were in use anciently, until the monarchs began to know 
their own strength; and seeing the turbulent spirits of their parliaments at 
length they, by little and little, began to stand upon their prerogatives and 
at last overthrow the parliaments throughout Christendom, except only here 
with us. ... 

But to the men of the Long Parliament, it did not appear to be a pros- 
pect of 'little and little 1 , but of sudden, absolute and imminent destruc- 
tion of the constitution. Strafford would be the agent, and his instrument 
would be a Scottish army, or an Irish army, or a Continental army 
(there were wild and atavistic rumours that the Danes were landing on 
the East Coast), or a combination of all three. Men would arise to do the 
King's evil bidding from what Henry vm had called 'the most brute 
and beastly shires of the realm', or, in the words of a Gloucester MP 
'come out of blind Wales and other dark corners of the land'. The King 
had not merely betrayed the English mission: he was threatening the 
racial impulse on which it was based. It was not just a class or a religion 
that was menaced: it was English civilisation. 

Seen against this background, the events of 1640-60 no longer appear to 
be an aberration but a reassertion of some of the central currents of 
English historical development. As is characteristic of the English, they 
are dominated by three important paradoxes. First, it is not correct 
that Parliament overthrew the Government of Charles. On the contrary, 
it collapsed of its own accord. By the time the Long Parliament was 
summoned, many functions of the State were grinding to a halt. Charles's 
only effective servant was Strafford, as Parliament recognised: once he 
had been attainted, and executed, 'struck on the head', as MPs said, 
'like a wild beast', the Government disintegrated. Many ministers fled 
abroad. The rest presented themselves to Parliament and asked for 
orders and authority.* Charles was without a treasury, an army, a judi- 

* See Perez Zagorin: The Court and the Country: The Beginnings of the English Revolu- 
tion (London, 1969), p. 210. For the behaviour of civil servants during the Civil War, see 
G.E. Aylmer: The King's Servants: the Civil Service of Charles 1, 1625-42 (London, 1961), 
PP- 337~4 1 7- The best modern comprehensive account of the period is Ivan Roots: The 
Great Rebellion, 1642-60 (London, 1966). 



cature or a civil service. Angry, bewildered and almost alone, he wan- 
dered aimlessly to York, where he summoned what he intended to be 
(one imagines) a grand council, of a type which was already obsolescent 
in the twelfth century; but nobody came to it. He did not know what to 
do. (His only decisive act, in a desperate attempt to curry favour and 
prove his suspect allegiance to the State, was to seize and hang two 
Catholic priests, one a harmless old man of 90 : to my mind this cruel and 
meaningless murder absolves the English, then and now, of any moral 
duty to pity this doomed sovereign.) Charles, in effect, abdicated; and 
Parliament "necessarily moved in to fill the vacuum of government, and 
to guarantee the safety of an imperilled nation, which had been aban- 
doned to its enemies. It formally invited the Monarch to consult with it 
about the management of the country; it summoned the King, as the 
Crown had been accustomed to summon Parliament ; but there was no 

Indeed, the King's response could in legal terms be construed as an act 
of rebellion: herein lies the second paradox. By setting up his standard 
at Nottingham, Charles made a gesture traditionally associated with 
rebellion (though the point was, and is, arguable). Wyatt had 'set 
up his standard' in 1554, Northumberland in 1569; planning rebel- 
lion in 1601, Essex had been urged by his supporters to set up his stan- 
dard in Wales. Such an act usually figured in formal charges of treason. 
Hence the strict logic of Parliament's indictment that Charles Stuart 
was in rebellion not merely against the nation but against the Crown 


This, of course, explains the poor response Charles's action evoked. 
But here we come to the third paradox: the civil war came about pre- 
cisely because Charles was virtually alone. Parliament raised an army 
merely as a bluff; none believed it would be needed. The universal 
assumption was that the King would be obliged to submit to the nation 
and accept its terms. But this assumption itself brought a shift in 
attitudes. The King had endeavoured to destroy the constitution, and 
had been frustrated. Now his very weakness and isolation threatened 
to produce a radical imbalance in the constitution towards the opposite 
end of the political spectrum. At least this was what a significant section 
of the propertied classes came to believe: popular insurgency in the 
south-east, attacks on gentlemen's houses, a feature of 1641-2, seemed 
to confirm such fears. There was a palpable shift of opinion towards the 
King, motivated not by a desire to assist his armed rebellion - no one 
thought it would come to that - but to widen the social base of his 
support sufficiently to create a constitutional bargaining-position, and 
so restore the traditional balance of forces as they had existed under 



Elizabeth. Both sides, indeed, wanted to bring back Elizabeth's day: 
herein lies the tragedy. Only Charles, his family and his immediate 
associates preferred war to compromise. But this politically motivated 
access of support he turned into a military instrument: it was just 
sufficient, with his allies from the Continent, from the Catholic interest, 
and from the economically backward parts of the British Isles, to pro- 
duce civil war. It was all a fearful miscalculation, a muddle from which, 
for once, the English genius for constructive hypocrisy could not extri- 
cate itself, until the consensus had been restored by force. 

Thus the English were confronted with something they had never faced 
before, and from which their instincts made them recoil in dismay - a 
wholly unprecedented crisis, for which their historical memories laid 
down neither guidelines nor obvious solution. The revolutionaries in 
America, in France and in Tsarist Russia were to inherit a distinguished 
revolutionary corpus of theory and experience, ultimately derived from 
England. The English themselves had nothing which seemed remotely 
relevant. The revolt of the Netherlands had been the overthrow of a 
foreign despotism; the history of Venice was instructive, but inapposite. 
Both cases were eagerly studied, and from first-hand experience: over 
100 Englishmen a year went to study at Leyden, and a number (includ- 
ing Milton) had been to Padua which, under the protection of Venice 
and outside the supervision of the Inquisition, was the freest university 
in Catholic Europe. But in all essentials the English were thrown back 
on their own history and their own intellectual tradition. 

This latter was not as meagre as one might suppose. The Reformation 
had done its work. The ending of the old clerical censorship under 
Edward vi, the growth of Anglican schools and colleges, above all the 
invasion of learning by the vernacular, had created a robust body of 
independent thought, strongly tinged by nationalism but imbued also 
with scientific and empirical principles which rejected the closed-circuit 
learning of the Roman-medieval world. In the century following the 
15603 England had advanced from scientific backwardness through a 
technological revolution - based chiefly on instruments of measurement 
- and at the outset of the Civil War was technically the most advanced 
country in the world. True, the reimposition of a strict censorship, and 
Laud's strenuous efforts to get a clericalist grip on the country's intellec- 
tual life, had impeded the progress and dissemination of learning. Laud 
silenced some scientists and drove others into exile. Exploiting the 
monopolistic position of Oxford and Cambridge - then, as later, the chief 
obstacles to the spread of higher learning in England - he tried to con- 



jure back the medieval world. He had the enthusiastic backing of the 
older generation of dons, who feared the threat of the new learning to 
their status and incomes. He was also supported by the senior arm of the 
medical profession, the College of Physicians, who clung blindly to the 
antique pseudo-science of Galen and Hippocrates. In 1635 Laud, who 
with other bishops issued licences to doctors, surgeons and midwives, 
restricted medical practice to those with degrees: empiricist medical 
men were thus excluded. None of the leading scientists and mathema- 
ticians got university jobs. Bishop Williams lamented: 'Alas, what a sad 
case it is that in this great and opulent kingdom there is no public 
encouragement for the excelling in any profession but that of law and 

Nevertheless, in the face of all the difficulties, progress was main- 
tained. John Barclay, a Scot, writing in 1614, noted: 'In philosophy and 
the mathematics, in geography and astronomic, there is no opinion so 
prodigious and strange, but in that island was invented, or has found 
followers and subtile instancers.' Gresham's College, which at the behest 
of its founder gave lectures in English as well as Latin, was a citadel of 
advanced learning for the London mercantile and scientific community: 
it had the kind of reputation which the LSE acquired under Laski, 
adventurous, nonconformist, dangerous to Church and State. Despite 
the censors, a great deal got through the net, including the immensely 
influential History of Ralegh. Subversive manuscripts passed from hand 
to hand, as in the Soviet Union today. Both Pym and Hampden, for 
instance, possessed manuscripts of banned works by Ralegh. There was 
a powerful intellectual underworld, which sprang into the light the 
moment the Long Parliament met. 

The new learning was subversive by effect rather than intention. 
Though King James found Ralegh 'too saucy in censuring princes', the 
latter by no means advocated rebellion. But he pointed out that, as a 
matter of historical record, people did in fact overthrow tyrants; and 
this, combined with Foxe's doctrine of the spiritual duty to resist, was 
enough. Moreover, Ralegh made it clear that the nature of English 
society suggested that such resistance was likely to be successful. The 
husbandmen and the yeomen of England are the freest of all the world 
... it is the freeman and not the slave, that hath courage and the sense of 
shame deserved by cowardice/ As opposed to France, where the people 
have 'no courage or arms', 'the strength of England doth consist of the 
people and yeomanry*. He emphasised, too, the new importance of the 
gentry, 'the garrisons of good order throughout the realm'. The people 
therefore,' he concluded, 'in these latter ages are no less to be pleased 
than the peers.' 



Bacon, too, was an acute observer of the changes which had taken 
place in society, though he saw them chiefly in economic terms. He 
admired the Netherlands because there 'wealth was dispersed in many 
hands', and he foresaw an England where it 'resteth in the hands of the 
merchants, burghers, tradesmen, freeholders, farmers in the country and 
the like'. He was not a parliamentarian but a monarchist, in a sense an 
absolutist: but his politics were belied by his intellectual empiricism, 
which was w r hat struck men as new and important in his work. 
What held medieval society in subjection was the intellectual con- 
sensus that no lasting improvement was possible in the material 
world: mankind lived in a vale of tears, from which only death and 
salvation would bring release. Any intellectual advance could be 
achieved only by obtaining a more precise definition of the received 
corpus of knowledge, by purely verbal methods of disputation. Bacon 
rejected both these propositions with scorn. The understanding having 
been emancipated - having come, so to speak, of age/ he wrote, '. . . there 
must necessarily ensure an improvement of man's estate, and an increase 
of his power over nature/ Verbal disputations were useless, indeed 
counter-productive : 'controversies of religion . . . must hinder the 
advancement of science/ They brought what Milton called 'thisimper- 
tinent yoke of prelaty, under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical 
duncery no free and splendid wit can flourish'. The only road to advance 
was through action, by empirical experiment : 'The industry of artificers 
maketh some small improvement of things invented; and chance some- 
times in experimenting maketh us to stumble upon somewhat which is 
new; but all the disputation of learned men never brought to light one 
effect of nature before unknown.' The world had been changed by print- 
ing, gunpowder and the mariner's compass, all of them lighted upon by 
chance'. If accident could produce such wonders, how much more rapid 
would progress be if experiments were planned, coordinated, backed by 
the full resources of the State. 'Nature cannot be conquered bat by obey- 
ing her . . . human knowledge and human power come in the end to one. 
To be ignorant of causes is to be frustrated in action.' Bacon was 
Englishman enough to suppose that this triumph of man over nature 
would be a recovery of past felicity - the scientific revolution would not so 
much project mankind into the future, as abolish the consequences of 
the Fall, and restore to the children of Adam (who were, of course, 
essentially English) their lost birthright. But he can hardly have sup- 
posed that such progress into the past would be welcome to a monarch 
of James's type, who wished his subjects to be alike, 'ignorant of causes' 
and 'frustrated in action'. 
Oddly enough, Bacon's mortal rival and enemy, Coke, supplied the 



practical ideology of resistance which was lacking in this broad back- 
ground of intellectual subversion. One might say that the lawyers, of 
whom Coke was the quintessential spirit, both sired the English "revolu- 
tion and then aborted it. Coke had a much more direct appeal to the 
English, and above all to MPs of gentry origin, because he taught that 
Stuart monarchy was essentially an aberration from the English tradi- 
tion, and its actions unjustified by ancient precedent: this was precisely 
what they wanted to hear. This unpleasant old judge, who tied his 
daughter to a bedpost and beat her mercilessly until she agreed to 
marry a man who would advance Coke's fortunes at court, knew more 
about the law than any man in the kingdom. What he did not know he 
invented, to suit his convenience; and no one dared contradict him. By 
reducing the common law to a vast series of commentaries, he in effect 
gave England a kind of jumbled written constitution, based on the 
traditional and statute law (as opposed to King's courts) and parlia- 
mentary sovereignty (as opposed to the prerogative). Much of what he 
believed was utilitarian myth: he taught, for instance, that Parliament 
went back to before the days of Arthur; and it was not until the i66os 
that royalist scholars, delving into the records kept in the Tower, found 
that it was a mere Plantagenet institution. On the other hand it was the 
kind of creative history the English had always employed for political 
purposes - the secular equivalent to Foxe's theory of the chosen race - 
and provided chapter and verse for a new parliamentary consensus. As in 
the past, revolutionary conservatism was summoned to repel unwelcome 
Stuart innovation from the ship of State. The common law, Coke said, 
'is the absolute perfection of reason . . . refined and perfected by all the 
wisest men in former successions of ages . . . [it] cannot without great 
hazard and danger be altered or changed/ How could an ignorant Scots 
King be expected to answer these majestic and lapidary repetitions ? 
Thus Coke used the law to destroy the prerogative structure of the 
Tudor State, which Charles had inherited. He had, too, a gift for the 
sharp phrase which less learned MPs could repeat with mindless and 
impressive dogmatism. How could the King's officers dare to search a 
man's property, for 'the house of an Englishman is to him as his castle'. 
Monopolies were plainly against Clauses 29-30 of Magna Carta, and 
'Magna Carta is such a fellow as will have no sovereign'. Every English- 
man, said Coke, was born with a priceless inheritance denied to lesser 
breeds: The ancient and excellent laws of England are the birth-right 
and the most ancient and best inheritance that the subjects of this realm 
have, for by them he enjoyeth not only his inheritance and goods in 
peace and quietness, but his life and his most dear country in safety/ 
If such enjoyment conflicted with the King's policies, then the King was 



acting outside the law, and the subject was not only entitled but bound 
to oppose him. Thus we see how Henry vm, in ransacking the archives 
to prove his power against the Pope, set a pattern of historical research 
which was turned against his successors, and deprived them of every- 
thing he took for granted. 

Accordingly, under the banners of Foxe and Coke, the parliamentary 
nation went to war against a rebellious king, confident in its historic 
rectitude and sense of mission. But the trumpet blew with an uncertain 
note, and the walls of Jericho did not immediately fall. Pym was a 
brilliant parliamentary manager, who used the conveniently ill-defined 
powers and procedure of the Commons to beat Charles to every political 
trick; he had the true revolutionary's instinct to prefer narrow-based 
activism to an irresolute broad-based consensus of MPs. The royalist 
Members and Peers departed, and Pym was left in possession of the 
parliamentary and constitutional field. But he could not win battles; 
and nor could the Earl of Essex. So the closed circle of lawyer and gentry 
MPs who directed the first phase of the Civil War, and whose goal was 
an adumbration of the eventual Whig settlement of 1688, found them- 
selves obliged, in extremis, to summon the assistance of a submerged 
section of the people, and bring them into the political nation in the 
form of constitutional warriors. Parliament won the war, in the end 
without difficulty, because in the New Model Army it had enfranchised 
the people. Its officers and men had, for the most part, been excluded 
hitherto from the political and religious consensus. They were trades- 
men, artisans, farmers, even labourers, or men of estates so small they 
scarcely qualified to vote at elections. Even the regimental com- 
manders came from a humble social class. Colonel Ewer had been a 
serving-man, Harrison the son of a butcher, Pride a brewer's drayman, 
Okey a tallow-chandler, Hewson a shoemaker, Goffe a salter, Barkstead 
a goldsmith, Berry a clerk, Kelsey a button-maker. Cromwell did not 
want fancy officers, like the Earl of Manchester, for he thought it 'would 
not be well until Manchester was but Mr Montague*. 'Better plain men 
than none.' As for troops, he demanded men with a small stake in the 
country and the desire and ability to increase it, 'being well armed with- 
in by the satisfaction of their conscience and without by good iron arms, 
they would as one man stand firmly and charge desperately'. Such were, 
indeed, the men he got, as Richard Naxter noted: These men were of 
greater understanding than common soldiers . . . and making not money 
but that which they took to be public felicity their end, they were the 
more engaged to be valiant/ Many of these officers and soldiers (to 


Cromwell's mind) entertained weird and wonderful opinions in religion, 
but he insisted this was secondary to their determination and loyalty: 
'The State in choosing men to serve it takes no notice of their opinion : 
if they be willing faithfully to serve it, that satisfies/ In fact the intran- 
sigence of their views was the best safeguard that the struggle would be 
pressed home to absolute victory. Cromwell had no patience with men 
who sought accommodation before all physical power was in safe hands. 
When Manchester whined, in November 1644: If we beat the king nine 
and ninety times, yet he is king still. But if the king beats us once, we 
shall be hanged/ Cromwell replied angrily: 'My Lord, if this be so, why 
did we take up arms at first ? This is against fighting ever hereafter. If 
so, let us make peace be it never so base/ Now Cromwell knew that his 
men did not fear to be hanged, because they knew it was not in God's 
providence; they, like their general, were His Englishmen. 

Thus Parliament won the war by bringing into play a new class of 
humble folk who, for the first time in English history - for the first time 
in world history - were called upon by the State to serve not just with 
their bodies, but with their mental and spiritual energies, not as cannon- 
fodder, but as sentient and thinking individuals. Naturally, they were 
more than a match for Charles's foreign mercenaries, his vicious courtiers 
and their rapacious retinues, his dragooned rabbles of Irish, Scottish and 
Welsh peasants. Once the New Model was formed, the King's game was 
up. But its chief importance was not military, but political: it was a 
giant step forward in the liberation of mankind from darkness. 

For Denzil Holies and the other parliamentarians of the centre, the 
end of the war was the mere prelude to negotiations with the King on a 
settlement acceptable to the landed classes. These talks could be safely 
left to the gentry. As for the New Model, it was a genie to be replaced 
promptly in its bottle and firmly corked up; except, that is, for those 
regiments required for a campaign of attrition against the * Irish 
savages'. This programme was presented to the army with a brutal 
arrogance which even Charles might have envied. Pym, to be sure, 
would have found a basis for agreement ; but Pym was dead. His suc- 
cessors refused to pay the troops their back-wages before disbandment, 
declined pensions for the families of the fallen and, most sinister of all, 
any indemnity for acts committed by troops in the discharge of their 
duty. As for Cromwell and his sort, he had already expressed a view that 
he might, lacking a further parliamentary commission, enlist with the 
Protestants in Germany; let him go there. So began Cromwell and 
Ireton's three-way negotiations with the King and the parliamentary 
majority; and so, in parallel, the formation of a political movement 
among the troops, with the election of adjutators, or agitators, from 



each regiment to represent rank-and-file opinion. The King was seized; 
the army moved closer to London. The genie would not go back into the 
bottle ; the question was, could it be dispersed in Putney Church ? 

At this point in time, October 1647, the political spectrum of England, 
both inside and outside Parliament, could be represented as follows, 
reading from Left to Right. On the extreme Left were the Clubmen 
(violent revolutionary anarchists) ; then the Diggers (communist paci- 
fists, led by Gerald Winstanley) ; the Levellers ( a social democrat group, 
the civilian wing led by Lilburne, the military wing by Sexby and the 
other agitators) ; the Independents (radical gentry officers, led by Crom- 
well, with a parliamentary wing of about 60) ; the Presbyterian centre 
party (the majority of MPs, led by the Denzil Holies group, who wanted 
a Whiggish constitutional compromise with the King); crypto- or 
outright royalists (mainly in custody or in exile). All these were minority 
groups, though the Presbyterians, followed by the Independents, were 
by far the largest. Cromwell's aim, towards which he worked by instinct 
more than by any clear and preconceived plan, was to create from these 
splintered groups a national consensus, on a broadly based programme of 
toleration and reform. 

But first he had to secure unity in the army. In June, his son-in-law, 
Ireton, an accomplished lawyer and draftsman, had produced a declara- 
tion for the union of the army and Parliament, setting out broad, philo- 
sophic principles : 

. . . that we are not a meer mercenary Army hired to serve any Arbitrary 
power of a State, but called forth and conjured by the severall Declarations 
of Parliament to the defence of our owne and the people's just Rights and 
Liberties ; and so we took up Armes in judgment and conscience to those ends, 
and have so continued in them, and are resolved according to your first just 
desires in your Declaration . . . and our own common sense concerning those 
our fundamental rights and liberties, to assert and vindicate the just power 
and rights of this Kingdome in Parliament for those common ends promised 
against all arbitrary power, violence, and oppression, and against all par- 
ticular parties or interests whatsoever. 

The army's right of resistance was based upon 'the Law of Nature and of 
Nations' and 'the proceedings of our ancestors of famous memory to the 
purchasing of such Rights and Liberties, as they have enjoyed through 
the price of their bloud, and we (both by that and the later bloud of our 
deare friends and fellow soldiers) with the hazard of our own, do not lay 
claim on to'. In other words, the army's programme was modest. So long 
as parliaments were 'rightly constituted, that is, freely, equally, and 



successively chosen', \vith a legal, fixed duration, and summoned at 
definite intervals, the army would willingly submit to their authority: 

Thus a firm foundation being laid in the authority and constitution of 
Parliaments for the hopes, at least, of common and equall right and freedom 
to ourselves and to all the freeborn people of this land; we shall for our pan< 
freely and cheerfully commit our stock or share of interest in this kingdome 
into this commom bottome of Parliaments, and though it may (for our par- 
ticulars) go ill with us in one Voyage, yet we shall thus hope (if right be with 
us) to fare better in another. 

At Putney Church, however, it was soon apparent that, in the eyes of 
the Left, this programme begged all the crucial questions. It merely 
guaranteed the powers and regular sittings of Parliament : it left un- 
touched its present composition. Yet this was based on usurpation, the 
imposition of the 'Norman yoke' on what had once been a free Saxon 
society, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of all. Under the original 
contract of society, said Wildman, 'the true and ancient fundamental 
constitution', the King and Lords had no special position. Why should 
what they had stolen now be legally endorsed ? 'The difference is whether 
we should alter the old foundations of our Government soe as to give to 
Kinge and Lords that which they could never claime before/ Moreover, 
even if it were conceded that the real power should lie with the Commons, 
the suffrage on \vhich it was elected was so narrow as to place authority, 
in perpetuity, in the hands of the landed classes. So the agitators pro- 
duced a programme in which the vote was given to all adult males, 
except those in receipt of wages and poor relief. 

Cromwell was appalled. The changes the agitators proposed alarmed 
him not so much because they were wrong as because they were so big. 
Truly/ he said, 'this paper does containe in itt very great alterations of 
the very Governement of the Kingedome, alterations from that Governe- 
ment that itt hath bin under, I believe I may also say since itt was a 
Nation/ Supposing it were carried out: might not another group of 
opinionated men come along and propose a further set of changes? 
Where would it all end? England would become another Switzerland, 
with a different constitution for each canton. 'Would itt nott bee utter 
confusion ?' Yes : it would produce 'an absolute desolation to the Nation'. 
The English were conservative, adverse to change ; a written constitu- 
tion was worthless unless 'the spiritts and temper of the people of this 
Nation are prepared to receive and to goe alonge with itt'. They needed 
coaxing: there 'bee very great mountaines in the way of this'. 

Moreover, said Ireton, like Cromwell a man of substance, the funda- 
mental axiom of the English constitution was that power should go with 



property, 'which if you take away, you take away all by that*. A man had 
the right to vote by virtue of his fixed interest in the State, which took 
the form of land or membership of a trading corporation : he thereby 
invested in society, and had a legal claim to a voice in its government. 
'Now I wish wee may all consider of what right you will challenge, that 
all the people should have right to Elections. Is itt by the right of nature ? 
If you will hold forth that as your ground, then I thinke you must deny 
all property too/ The vote must be confined to men with a 'permanent 
interest in the State'. Give it to a man who has no more fixed property 
than 'hee may carry about with him', a man who 'is heere to day and 
gone to morrow', and there will be nothing to prevent him from stealing 
by confiscatory laws. If the vote is his by law of nature, then so is equal 
division of property by law of nature. The result would be chaos and 
violence. To which Cromwell chorused that, if power in the State was 
given, through the vote, to 'men that have noe interest butt the interest 
of breathing', then 'the consequences of this rule tends to anarchy, must 
end in anarchy'.* 

This argument brought an explosion from the radical Colonel Rain- 
borough. Why should they presume that all men were evil? Why should 
giving men a vote lead to the destruction of property, let alone anarchy? 
God had laid down a commandment : 'Thou shalt not steal.' This was the 
true law of property. Did they have such little faith in the people of 
England that they would not trust them, even with power in their 
hands, to obey such a fundamental command? The question to be 
determined was by what right, and with what means, had property 
in the past been acquired. Besides, added Maximilian Pettus, why should 
a 'fixed interest' be defined as 403 freehold and above ? Why should a 
vote be denied to a man with a leasehold worth 100 a year? Ireton 
replied hastily that he was not defending the existing property qualifica- 
tion, which might well be anomalous : he simply maintained that there 
must be one. 

This the radicals would not admit. As one pointed out, the concept of 
the * freeborn' was more important than the concept of the 'freehold' : 
people were more important than things. 'The chief end of this Govern- 
ment is to preserve persons as well as estates, and if any law shall take 

* The Cromwell-Ireton theory remained standard English constitutional doctrine until 
the Reform Bill, 1832. The reactionary Scottish judge, Lord Braxfield, at the trial of 
Thomas Muir for sedition, 1793, put it almost in Ireton's words: 'A government in every 
country should be just like a corporation; and, in this country, it is made up of the 
landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have 
nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them? What security for the 
payment of their taxes ? They may pack up all their property on their backs, and leave 
the country in a twinkling of an eye, but landed property cannot be removed/ 



hold of my person itt is more deare than my estate.' Property qualifica- 
tions, added Rainborough, meant that po\ver would be confined to the 
rich - the top fifth of the nation. The result? 'I say the one parte shall 
make hewers of wood and drawers of water of the other five, and soe the 
greatest parte of the Nation bee enslav'd.' The defenders of the status 
quo had no argument 'butt only that itt is the present law of the 
Kingedome'. Then what had the war been about ? 'What shall become of 
those many men that have laid themselves out for the Parliament of 
England in this present warre, that have ruined themselves by fighting, 
by hazarding all they had ? They are Englishmen.' But now they were to 
be denied the vote, to have 'nothing to say for themselves*. 

Rainborough returned again and again to one question, to which 
Cromwell and Ireton could return no answer (no one can) : 'How is it 
that some men have property and others do not?' On what principles of 
law or justice is this determined? No such principles existed: accident, 
chance, events of the past, often bloody and unjust events, had created 
the present disposition of property. Was this therefore to be frozen in 
perpetuity by vesting power exclusively in those who already had every- 
thing else? To which Ireton replied, a touch complacently, that until 
God gave a manifest sign that property should be redistributed, the 
present arrangements must endure: The law T of God doth nott give mee 
propertie, nor the law of nature, butt propertie is of humane Constitu- 
tion. I have a propertie, and this I shall enjoy/ To destroy the principle 
of property is 'a thinge evill in ittself and scandalous to the world*. 

This absolutist insistence on the rights of private property brought 
from the lowly Edward Sexby perhaps the most brilliant and bitter 
intervention in the debate. 'Wee have engaged in this Kingdome and 
ventured our lives, and itt was all for this: to recover our birthrights and 
priviledges as Englishmen, and by the arguments urged [by you] there is 
none. There are many thousands of us souldiers that have ventured our 
lives ; wee have had little propriety in the Kingedome as to our estates, 
yett we have had a birthright. Butt it seems now except a man hath a 
fix'd estate in this Kingedome, hee hath noe right in this Kingdome. I 
wonder wee were so much deceived. If wee had nott a right to the 
Kingedome, wee w r ere meere mercenarie souldiers/ However, he had 
news for the conservatives (eyeing Ireton and Cromwell) : the 'poor and 
meaner of this Kingdome' had given their all, 'to their utmost possibility' 
for 'purchasing the good of the Kingdome'; they would not now be 
deprived of their rights; it was a lie to say they stood for 'anarchy and 
confusion' - they have 'the law of God and the law of their conscience' 
on their side. 'I shall tell you in a worde my resolution. I am resolved to 
give my birthright to none.' 



It was at this point, it seems to me in studying the record, that Crom- 
well decided that the debate could not be pressed to its logical conclu- 
sions without shattering the revolution in fragments, and in consequence 
bringing the blackest reaction, and indeed death, upon them all In 
logic, he knew, he and Ireton did not have a case: Sexby and Rain- 
borough were right. But he did not believe that logic was very impor- 
tant. What was important was to achieve a consensus, a compromise 
upon a lowest common denominator of agreement. This was the only 
way in which an immensely lethargic, conservative and traditionalist 
nation like the English could be brought to move into the future. Some- 
one had earlier used the phrase 'half a loaf is better than none' ; it was 
not the first time it had cropped up in English political debates ; and it is 
still in constant use today wherever Englishmen gather to discuss any- 
thing contentious. It sums up the mindless common sense with which 
the English approach political problems. The question was, as Cromwell 
saw it, at what point was the loaf to be sliced ? And how could agreement 
be reached on where the knife should fall ? 'Let us be doing/ he said, 'but 
let us be united in doing/ It was no use trying to force universal suffrage 
on Parliament, even were it desirable in the abstract; such could be 
achieved only by the sword, 'and what we need is a treatie'. In any case, 
a comatose nation would not stand such an upheaval: the minority 
status of the political activists would be exposed, there would be a flood 
of revulsion, and the King would win back all just at the moment when 
he had lost it. 

So Cromwell moved towards a compromise, ably assisted by Ireton. 
The latter pointed out that he was really just as radical as anyone: did 
he not believe in fixed parliaments, in equal constituencies? As for a 
wider suffrage, he would not oppose it if it were truly wanted by 'the 
generalitie of those whome I have reason to thinke honest men and 
conscientious men'. It was agreed that those who had helped Parliament 
should have the vote as of right ; it was agreed that further considera- 
tion should be given to the whole question of property and political 
power. Early in November the agitators were persuaded to disperse 
quietly to their regiments. On the fifteenth Cromwell had a radical 
soldier executed by drumhead court martial. In the next two years he 
de-politicised the army. In the meantime, he gave the radicals much of 
what they wanted. He executed Charles Stuart. He abolished the House 
of Lords. But he did not entrust the people with the power to dispose of 
property. He did not trust the people with anything. Did he save the 
revolution ? Or did he betray it ? It is not in the nature of English history 
to provide unequivocal answers to such precise questions. 

Whether or not Cromwell betrayed the revolution, the England he 



created, or rather unleashed from the bonds of the past, \\as s 
entirely new, strange and wonderful. The year 1640 is the great water- 
shed in the history of the offshore islanders: during the next 20 years 
many things were done in the island which all the forces of conservatism 
were later unable to reverse, and though the experiment as a whole was 
aborted, the England of 1660 contained the chromosomes of a modern 
country, the first in the history of the world. The image of Cromwellian 
England handed down to us -puritanical, intolerant, hating pleasure and 
the arts, restrictive of liberty, a military dictatorship informed by a 
narrowly religious view of life - is not only false : it is the exact reverse 
of the truth. The movement Cromwell led unleashed the latent energies 
of the English people : he himself was, as Milton later put it in Samson 

a person raised 

With strength sufficient and command from heaven 
To free my country. 

All great revolutions - the American in 1776, the French in 1789, the 
Russian in 1917, the Chinese in 1949 - are in one vital sense patriotic, 
springing from a sense of national frustration, a conviction that the 
existing structure of society imposes intolerable restraints on the genius 
and capacity of the people. In this, as in other respects, the English 
revolution which began in 1640 set the pattern. Suddenly, as the presses 
poured forth a torrent of forbidden books, and new ideas, openly 
expressed, fought for survival in a thousand excited conversations, the 
English experienced the joyful intoxication which Stendhal's La Char- 
treuse de Parme portrayed so brilliantly in Milan, and which I witnessed 
in the early days of Castro's Cuba. For decades great talents and en- 
deavours had boiled beneath the restrictive carapace of early Stuart 
England. A conservative like Donne had fearfully sniffed the winds of 
change : 

And new Philosophy calls all in doubt 

The element of fire is quite put out ; 

. . . Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot, 

For ever}' man alone thinkes he hath got 

To be a Phoenix. 

It was Cromwell who allowed the phoenix to rise. 'Men/ wrote Bacon, 
'have been kept back as by a kind of enchantment from progress in the 
sciences by a reverence for antiquity/ Many years before the Revolution, 
he had advised Buckingham to do 'that which I think was never done 
since I was born . . . which is that you countenance and encourage and 



advance able men, in all kinds, degrees and professions'. This was pre- 
cisely the formula on which the New Model had been built, and not just 
in a strict military sense. The antique doctors of the College of Physi- 
cians had mostly joined the royalists, whose wounded they dispatched 
by the thousand; the New Model had an organised medical service, 
staffed by the despised Surgeons, and the humble Apothecaries, a service 
later extended to the Commonwealth navy, and which allowed Robert 
Blake to give England world sea-supremacy: the physical power of 
Cromwellian England was based essentially on the new learning. This 
was a time for talent to manifest itself.* To Milton, London was 'a city 
of refuge, the mansion house of liberty', where men were 'reading, trying 
all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement' ; or, 
as John Hall put it in 1649, England was imbued with 'the highest 
spirit, pregnant with great matters . . . attempting the discovery of 
a new world of knowledge*. Sir Arthur Haselrig, MP, summed up the 
whole experiment in a phrase: the country was 'living long in a little 

Cromwell was conscious of this sense of adventure. He had read 
Ralegh's History. He was a child of the Elizabethan age ; his aim was to 
recreate its glories in a more sober, scientific spirit. He had lived through 
the national humiliations of Charles's personal government when, in 
the words of the Venetian ambassador, 'England had become a nation 
useless to the rest of the world, and consequently of no consideration'. 
He had thought of emigrating to get away from the pain of it all ; indeed, 
he swore that he would unless the Grand Remonstrance was passed. He 
had the self-confidence in England's destiny which came from member- 
ship of an immense and ramifying family of squires. When he was 
first elected in 1628, nine of his cousins were MPs; 17 of his cousins and 
nine other relatives served, at one time or another, in the Long Parlia- 
ment. He was one of the few people, even then, who could trace their 
origins to pre-Conquest times. His family were active in the fight for 

* One of Charles's judges, John Cooke, advocated free medical treatment for the poor; 
Samuel Herring proposed free medical services, run by men paid by the State, something 
for which the English had to wait until 1948, and which the Americans lack even now. 
The Leveller newspaper, the Moderate, forecast the invention of flying-machines: 
'Experience daily shows us that nothing is impossible unto man.' For Cromwell's role in 
these stirring times, see Christopher Hill's brilliant biography, God's Englishman (London, 
1970). Hill, in his Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford, 1965), makes the 
ingenious point that there was a logical connection between new scientific theory and 
radical politics : the parliamentarians were heliocentrists, the royalists Ptolemaics, and, 
as can be seen from popular almanacs, Ptolemaic theory perished with Charles I ; Coper- 
nicus 'democratised the universe' by breaking the hierarchical structure of the heavens, 
Harvey 'democratised' the human body by dethroning the heart. (But Harvey was a 
royalist : he took charge of the King's sons during the Battle of Edgehill, according to 



liberty. Six cousins were imprisoned for refusing the forced loan of 1627 ; 
Hampden was his cousin, and so was the man who undertook his defence 
over ship-money. Cromwell was an integrated Englishman. To him, 
Charles was an incompetent, alien adventurer, a man whose pride and 
deceit had cost oceans of decent, innocent English blood on both sides; a 
man to be punished like a felon. His son was feckless, self-indulgent and 
unworthy: 'he will be the undoing of us all'; all he wanted was 'a 
shoulder of mutton and a whore'; it was intolerable that such men 
should sit on Elizabeth's throne and be honoured by the charge of 
England's destinies. 

There is no doubt that Cromwell, in his slow, cautious but deeply 
passionate manner, was convinced of the divine mission. As Lord Pro- 
tector, he declared in May 1654: 

Ask all the nations of this matter, and they will testify, and indeed the 
dispensations of the Lord have been as if he had said, England, thou are my 
first-born, my delight amongst the nations, under the whole heavens the Lord 
hath not dealt so with any of the people round about us. 

But there was nothing messianic about Cromwell. His victories were a 
providential dispensation, ending in the 'crowning mercy* of Worcester 
in 1651, the last time he took the field. But God merely ordained; it was 
for man in righteous energy and prudence to fulfil the ordinance. He 
accepted Ralegh's view that history was like a clock, unwinding itself 
according to God's design: but its shape was determined by secondary 
causes brought about by man's efforts. Like Henry v, whom he resem- 
bled in so many ways, he knew that God was on his side in battle ; but, 
unlike Henry, he took no pleasure in numerical inferiority; except at 
Dunbar, he always ensured he had a preponderance of men and cannon. 
He rejected the rentier religion of the Catholics, in which the believer 
drew on the accumulated virtues of the saints; his faith was active, 
entreprenurial, dynamic: he 'wrestled \\ith God', as he put it. 

Under Cromwell, England emerged as a world power, not through 
faith but through works. The New Model Army exorcised the nightmares 
of generations of English governments: the open 'back door' in Ireland, 
and the threat of invasion from the north. Problems which had baffled 
Edward I and Elizabeth were resolved in two swift campaigns, and 
Cromwell was able to summon the first imperial parliament, with the 
British Isles resting in perfect tranquillity (not, alas, justice) under an 
English paramountcy. He was so much the master of England that a 
royalist uprising could be treated with a leniency springing from 
absolute confidence, almost contempt. The hostility with which the 
English revolution was regarded throughout royalist Europe, even in 



Russia, soon turned to nervous respect, and then fear, as the English 
fleets and armies began to operate. In 1649-51 alone, 40 great warships, 
equipped with new heavy guns, w*ere built and sent to sea. A new genera- 
tion of humbly born generals, captains and admirals, of enthusiastic civil 
servants, of military scientists, of stern-faced professional diplomats, 
backed by the latest equipment, financed by the wholly unprecedented 
sums that Parliament raised in taxation, carried the revolutionary 
enterprise abroad. Wherever the Stuarts got aid and comfort, Blake's 
ships and Cromwell's redcoats were liable without warning to make a 
devastating appearance. The decline of English power was abruptly 
reversed, and the awe-inspiring aggression of English racialism un- 
leashed. In 1651 Parliament had passed the Navigation Act, imposing a 
strict mercantilism on England's export and import trade, leading to a 
rapid growth of the English civil marine, and opening a vast programme of 
expansion to English commerce. Under Cromwell, Portugal was reduced 
to an English political satellite, and Brazil entered; the Netherlands 
were battered and allotted a subordinate role in the international 
economic system. Mazarin had rightly feared that revolution would 
make England formidable, for he predicted that a free Parliament would 
willingly finance a forward policy. France suffered from Cromwell's fist, 
and so, in turn, did Spain, her West Indian empire ripped open, Jamaica 
seized, one treasure-fleet captured, another destroyed under the guns of 
Spanish forts, her coasts blockaded for the first time throughout the 
winter season by Blake's all-weather fleet. England locked up the 
Channel and entered the Baltic. Across the Atlantic, the English colonies 
at last got the economic backing and the military protection of the State. 
In the Mediterranean, the navy asserted an easy supremacy, putting 
down piracy, avenging insults to English merchants and nationals, 
enforcing tolerance and a respect for commerce on the rulers of Tetuan 
and Tunis. It was the beginning of gunboat diplomacy, as of much else. 
Cromwell laid down the matrix of three centuries of Empire (in the name 
of God, of course). 

He might have gone very much further; no one who studies the 
records of these astonishing years can escape a feeling of relief that, in 
fact, he stayed his hand. A man of resolve, presiding over a revolution 
which has brought whole new classes - an entirely fresh range of national 
genius and talent - into the enthusiastic service of the State, possesses a 
terrible power for good or evil in the world. Napoleonic France made 
itself the master of Europe through the energy of such a revolution; 
it was only deprived of global power, and eventually extinguished, 
because it was faced by the countervailing power of English nationalism, 
itself the product of revolution. But in seventeenth-century Europe no 



such balancing factor existed: apart from Holland, the debilitating 
restraints of the Roman-medieval world still paralysed national energies 
everywhere. For the English it was a moment of terrible temptation, of 
the type to which Henry v would surely have succumbed if he had lived. 
In the 16505, said Thurloe, Cromwell 'carried the keys of the Continent 
at his girdle, and was able to make invasions thereupon, and let in 
armies and forces upon it at his pleasure'. Moreover, Cromwell not only 
had the opportunity: he and the articulate nation had, or believed they 
had, a mandate from no less a person than the Deity. God's Englishmen 
had been told to complete His reformation ; and how was this to be done 
except by the destruction of Continental Catholic power? All successful 
revolutions tend to export themselves, and thereby create tyranny not 
only abroad but in their own heartlands. If Cromwell had entered 
Europe, there can be little doubt that the Continental monarchies 
would have collapsed like a pack of cards, and that the Catholicism of 
southern and central Europe would have been torn from its secular 

Certainly there were many voices urging Cromwell on. George Fox, 
not yet by any means a pacifist, chided the army for its failure to carry 
Protestantism to Spain and Italy. Andrew Marvell wrote in anticipation : 

And to all states not free 
Shall climacteric be. 

Cromwell's own thoughts strayed occasionally in this direction. He is 
reported to have said to General Lambert: 'Were I as young as you, I 
should not doubt, ere I died, to knock at the gates of Rome/ Happily, 
perhaps, age was a barrier to adventure. Cromwell was over 40 when the 
Long Parliament met ; he was in his mid-fifties when power came to him 
in its plenitude, already tired by battles and arguments, sick of the 
bloodshed he had witnessed, determined to hold together 'this poor 
tottered realm' as long as he lived, but disinclined to accept fresh 
and unknown responsibilities. And he had to take account, too, of the 
instinct of the offshore islanders - in this as in so many other ways - 
that the divine mission lay on the oceans; that the prudent attitude 
towards the Continent was to turn towards it a heavily armoured 
back; that in Europe the redcoats were ill-advised to venture beyond 
sight of their ships. Thus a sinister chapter in English history was not 

Instead, the English concentrated on achieving a cultural, scientific 
and technological supremacy, on the fulfilment of the Baconian pro- 
gramme. Machines which were banned under Charles were licensed and 
brought into use. The mineral monopolies were broken. Oxford was 



'Greshamised', and invaded by scientists, who, after the Restoration, 
regrouped themselves in London and founded the Royal Society. 
Revolution and education go hand in hand.* Even Clarendon, who hated 
Cromwell, admitted that under the Protectorate Oxford 'yielded a 
harvest of extraordinary good and sound knowledge in all parts of 
learning'. As early as 1641 the people of Manchester petitioned for a 
university, f many ripe and hopeful wits being utterly lost for want of 
education 1 ; York followed suit ; the Commons set up a Committee for 
the Advancement of Learning, and universities were proposed for 
Wales, Norwich and Durham. Charleton, in The Immortality of the 
Human Soul (1657), rejoiced 'that Britain, which was but yesterday the 
theatre of war and desolation, should today be the school of arts and 
court of all the Muses 

It is facile to present the Civil War as a conflict between the Two 
Cultures, parliamentary science versus royalist arts. True, some MPs 
disliked Charles's art collection, mainly because it had not been paid for: 
they resented 'squandering away millions of pounds upon rotten old 
pictures and broken-nosed marbles'. But the early intolerance was 
swept away as the Cromwellian vision unfolded. Attempts to legislate 
against the theatre were unenforced and unenforceable; more plays 
were in fact published at this time than in any previous period, and great 
poets were honoured and set to splendid public employments. Cromwell 
put an abrupt stop to the dispersal of national art-treasures, and his 
court at Hampton, where the envoys of the European kings came to pay 
him dutiful homage, was a model of modest and seemly splendour, f 
Perhaps with an eye to the homosexuality so rampant under the 
Stuarts, he authorised women to appear on the stage for the first time. 
He was passionately devoted to music: he sponsored the first perfor- 
mance of an English opera, installed two fine organs at Hampton Court, 
and held music parties every evening when affairs of state permitted. 
Smear-stories about the goings-on at Hampton are, of course, royalist 
propaganda, and moreover contradictory. Cromwell was accused, on the 

* A point which did not escape Charles Dickens, cf. Joe Gargery on the subject of 
Mrs Gargery : 'She ain't over partial to having scholars on the premises, and in partickler 
would not be over partial to my being a scholar, for fear as I might rise. Like a sort of 
rebel, don't you see?' (Great Expectations). Modern Conservative theory is based on the 
denial of educational opportunity to working-class children in the name of 'parental 
freedom', an up-to-date version of Filmer's paternalist theory of absolute monarchy. 

f And also of strict security. Charles n had offered ^500 a year for life 'to any man 
whosoever, within any of our three kingdoms, by pistol, sword or poison, or by any other 
ways or means whatsoever, to destroy the life of the said Oliver Cromwell'. Charles also 
discussed with his brother a plan to kill Cromwell with an infernal machine, the first 
recorded instance of bombing for personal assassination. For details of life at Cromwell's 
court, see Ernest Law: History of Hampton Court Palace, Vol. n (London, 1888). 



one hand, of introducing 'the French cringe', and on the other of encour- 
aging an informality unbecoming an English ruler. His wife was still 
more viciously attacked, both for the 'impertinent meannesses* of her 
simple tastes, and for giving herself airs; the royalists sneered at her 
'nimble housewifery', and said she had secret passages made so she 
could creep up on her servants unawares; they also charged her with 
drunkenness and low gallantries with the soldiers. In fact Cromwell's 
court, far from being, as the royalists claimed, a place of 'silent mum- 
mery, of starched and hypocritical gravity', was loud with songs and 
laughter. The solemnity was kept up chiefly to impress foreigners. For 
the rest, Cromwell liked 'jocos and frisks'. At the marriage of his 
daughter Frances to Mr Rich, he threw about 'the sack posset amongst 
all the ladies to spoil their clothes, which they took as a favour, and 
daubed all the stools where they were to sit, with wet sweetmeats'. 
Bulstrode Whitelock records : 

He would sometimes be very cheerful with us, and laying aside his great- 
ness, be exceedingly familiar with us, and, by way of diversion, would make 
verses with us, and everyone must try his fancy. He commonly called for 
tobacco pipes and a candle, and would now and then take tobacco himself. 
Then he would fall again to his serious and great business, and advise with us 
in those affairs. 

As for the stories of Cromwell's destruction of church treasures and 
stained-glass windows, they are pure inventions, propagated by genera- 
tions of high Tory clergymen; the actual evidence points all the other 
way.* Cromwell was devoted to the arts: his o\vn bedroom \vas hung 
with 'five pieces of fine tapestry hangings of Vulcan and Venus'. But 
then all Cromwell's doings are obscured by lying myths. 

We have noted before that toleration flourishes in England only 
under strong governments. Cromwell was as strong as he was tolerant. 
He proudly told Mazarin of the many Catholics he had saved from per- 
secution. He set his face like flint against the burning of witches, and 
encouraged efforts (characteristic of this time of freedom) to raise the 

* It is examined by G.F. Nuttall in 'Was Cromwell an Iconoclast?', Transactions of the 
Congregational Historical Society, xn. Damage attributed to Cromwell had, as a rule, 
occurred during the Reformation. There is no proven instance of him or his men deliber- 
ately despoiling churches; but of course he systematically 'slighted' royalist castles. For 
an examination of the myths surrounding Cromwell's memory, see Alan Smith: The 
Image of Cromwell in Folklore and Tradition', Folklore, 1968. The ill-disciplined Cavaliers 
left far more destruction in their wake; Anthony Wood commented angrily on their 
sojourn at Oxford: 'To give a further character of the court, though they were neat and 
gay in their apparell, yet they were very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departures 
their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses and cellars. Rude, 
rough, whoremongers; vaine, empty, careless.' 


status of women.* He had learnt in battle the practical virtue of tolera- 
tion. As he wrote to the Speaker after the successful siege of Bristol: 

Presbyterians, Independents, all had here the same spirit of faith and 
prayer . . . They agree here, know no names of difference; pity it should be 
otherwise anywhere. All that believe have the real unity, which is most 
glorious because inward and spiritual ... As for being united in forms, com- 
monly called uniformity, every Christian \\ill for peace sake study and do as 
far as conscience will permit; and from brethren, in things of the mind, we 
look for no compulsion but that of light and reason. 

Or again, in 1650 : 

Truly, I think that he that prays best will fight best. I had rather that 
Mahometanism were permitted amongst us than that one of God's children 
should be persecuted. 

In 1656, against strenuous opposition from nearly every political and 
religious faction, he brought the Jews back to England, from which they 
had been banned since the days of Edward I. Thus in England, at least, 
the seeds of religious toleration, first sown by his heroine Queen Eliza- 
beth, were replanted; but to do the same in Ireland proved beyond his 
power, or imagination.! 

Where Cromwell was less successful was in achieving a stable rela- 
tionship between the executive and Parliament. His aim from first to 
last was a broad consensus. God, he believed, spoke through his English- 
men; but the word of God was many-sided: it was heard by men with 
different nuances, all true in their fashion. Cromwell thus favoured 
coalitions ; and he had a brilliant talent for devising them and holding 
them together. He was a good listener, very slow to make up his mind 
until he had heard all points of view; he liked to dine with men of all 
factions, sitting silent while they harangued. He was an idealist, who 
wanted politics to disappear; he undertook the government merely 'until 
God may fit the people for such a thing*. But in the meantime he worked 
cheerfully along the traditional lines of English pragmatism. As Abbot 
said: 'Cromwell proceeds with strange dexterity towards the reconciling 
all kinds of persons, and chooses those of all parties whose abilities are 
most eminent.' 

* He inherited a radical tradition aimed at improving and protecting the status of 
women, especially against wife-beating, which goes back to Jane Anger her protection for 
women (1589) and William Heale's Apologia for Women (1609). Some of the Independents 
allowed women to share in the governance of the Church, and at this time they preached, 
took part in demonstrations, and presented petitions. See Christopher Hill : Intellectual 
Origins of the English Revolution (1965), p. 275. 

f See Appendix II : Cromwell and Ireland. 



But it was one thing to do this in practice, quite another to create a 
permanent, theoretical framework for it. Parliament, from being the 
popular underpinning of the Throne in Plantagenet and Tudor time?. 
had passed into opposition in 1611. On the existing suffrage it was 
inevitably dominated by the country gentry, who were in practice 
interested in nothing except the security of private property and low 
taxes; they opposed any kind of reform, and were really opposed to the 
principle of government itself. The Commons controlled its own compo- 
sition by its arbitrary right to debar and expel members. Cromwell took 
over this right in an endeavour to produce a workable House. He experi- 
mented with the suffrage. He tried an appointed Parliament. He in- 
creased the number of county seats, then the number of borough seats. 
But the same MPs always turned up; and, lacking the constructive 
genius of a Pym to lead them, proved an irritating obstacle to the grand 
Cromwellian vision. They would not countenance the splendid scheme 
of law reform upon which Cromwell had set his heart; as he remarked, 
angrily, the moment you raise the topic of law reform, MPs accuse you 
of threatening the sacred shibboleth of property. He recognised, grimly, 
that Parliament is the custodian not so much of liberty, as of the exist- 
ing division of property, as indeed it still is today. He could, of course, 
have transformed the composition of the House by a radical extension 
of the suffrage. But he feared that a popular vote would turn royalist : 
'If the common vote of the giddy multitude must rule the whole, how 
quickly would their own interest, peace and safety be dashed and 
broken/ So he turned instead to the piecemeal system of parliamentary 
management which, over the next 100 years, was to produce political 
stability in England. Cromwell was the first Whig, the connecting link 
between the system of Burleigh and the system of Walpole. 

But he was also, as he ardently wished to be, the reincarnation of 
Elizabeth, her true heir. He moved only reluctantly to the abolition of 
the throne, and quickly returned to the view that the government must 
have 'somewhat of monarchical in it'. He did not want to be a king; he 
agreed, for want of a better solution, to be a 'single person'. Under him, 
the system worked well : 'All things here are in a calme, expecting what 
his highness will settle, and what lawes he wall make. All stand bare to 
him/ If Cromwell had lived another year, he would almost certainly have 
accepted the Crown, and set up his own dynasty ; this would have been en- 
dorsed by the royalists, who were attached to facto monarchy, not the 
Stuarts. But Cromwell was carried off by the traditional English killer, 
bronchitis. His son was given the office without the magic of hereditary 
right, and soon resigned it. Cromwell might have chosen Lambert, the 
ablest of his subordinates, as his heir (Ireton and Blake were dead) ; but 



the two men had quarrelled, and Lambert therefore lacked the authority 
and status for the delicate job of reconciling army and parliamentary 
interests. Thus the Scottish command of the army was able to reimpose 
the Stuarts, to mixed feelings on the part of the English public. The 
Cromwellian vision faded, and the pace of English development slowed 
down. Had it persisted and, as was inevitable, accelerated still further, 
the industrial revolution would have occurred at the end of the seven- 
teenth century, and we would now be living in a twenty-first century 
world, with all its wonders and terrors. 

As it was, the Restoration put the clock half-back, in a thoroughly 
English spirit of muddled compromise. Some Commonwealth men were 
victimised; others prospered; it was all a lottery. Charles venomously 
settled some personal scores ; but he was too weak, or too lazy, to under- 
take the effort and danger of a general proscription, so he merely dis- 
interred the corpses of some great English patriots. He had his shoulder 
of mutton and his whore. Some of the reforms were kept; others 
scrapped, to reappear again in different guises. Prerogative power could 
not be resurrected, but the King, in some mysterious way, was still 
expected to rule. The election of the Cavalier Parliament marked an 
enormous swing to the Right; but within a year the majority melted 
away, and the last Stuart kings always faced opposition parliaments. 
In the Earl of Danby* Charles eventually found a parliamentary 
manager with some of the Cromwellian skills; but the amount of patron- 
age at his disposal was too limited to maintain a working majority, so 
Charles dispensed with Parliament and ruled through foreign subsidies. 
The return to Continentalism was bound to be fatal. The Cromwellian 
triumphs were too recent to allow public acquiescence in Charles's mis- 
management of external affairs: the disastrous war with the Dutch, 
the abrupt fall in the level of protection the State afforded to English 
trading and overseas interests, Charles's acquiescence, indeed active 
support, in the rise of a menacing French power on the Continent; the 
smell of secret treaties, so destructive of English interests that their 
terms could not be disclosed even to the King's closest advisers. More- 

* This man illustrates the confusion caused by the habit English politicians have of 
changing their names as they rise up the social scale. He began political life as Sir 
Thomas Osborne, Bart., then changed to Viscount Latimer (1673), Earl of Danby (1674), 
Marquess of Carmarthen (1689) and finally Duke of Leeds (1694). Even English cognos- 
centi sometimes get muddled. Thus, Fred Robinson, later Viscount Goderich, and later 
still Marquess of Ripon, foxed even his own Prime Minister, Canning. In August 1827 he 
wrote a paper on the situation in Portugal and told his secretary : 'Send it to Goderich and 
Robinson/ [W.D. Jones: Prosperity Robinson (London, 1967), p. 152]. 



over, Continentalism inevitably reopened the Catholic question - the 
two were inseparable. The last Stuart kings were not Catholics in a 
meaningful sense ; it is hard to accept they even believed in God (though 
James was a Mariolater). But they needed Catholicism as the only 
dependable political underpinning of a regal State. Sooner or later they 
were bound to seek to restore it, to bind England to a Continental system 
so closely that a revolt against the throne would evoke a response from 
the entire European community. So the last years of Charles were a 
continuum with the reign of his brother. As he aged, 'Old Rowley' 
dropped his mask of tolerance, and became increasingly suspicious, 
secretive and vindictive. His court acquired the seaminess of his grand- 
father's dotage, as Evelyn noted just before Charles's death: 

. . . unexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming and all dissolution, and 
as it were total forgetfulness of God . . . The King sitting and toying with his 
concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland and Mazarin, etc. ; a French boy singing 
love-songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers 
and other dissolute persons were at basset round a large table, a bank of at 
least 2,000 in gold before them six days after, all was dust. 

Charles prophesied that his bizarre and eccentric brother would not 
last as King for more than four years, and he \vas right. But there was no 
change of policy, merely an increased haste to execute it, and an aggra- 
vated indifference to public opinion. After all, it was Charles who 
appointed Jeffreys Lord Chief Justice, with a mandate to smash the 
courts ; and the current against the Stuart monarchy set in years before 
James got to the throne. But James had his own unique contribution to 
make to the long catalogue of Stuart folly and stupidity. His rare uncon- 
sciousness of the minds and feelings of others was reflected even in 
love-making, for he sought to seduce Miss Hamilton by 'giving her 
accounts of broken legs and arms, dislocated shoulders, and other 
curious and entertaining adventures'. Where Charles had despised the 
English, James actively hated them: 'He knew the English people/ he 
said, 'and they could not be held to their duty by fair treatment/ And 
what was their duty? James spelt it out: 'to follow his wishes blindly, 
and to own an attachment to his interests that was without any quali- 
fication or reserve whatsoever/ Not surprisingly, even the English 
recusants, to a man, declined to join such an ill-found ship. James was 
above taking realistic measures to secure his throne (though by no 
means averse to judicial murder). An exasperated Jeffreys noted: 'The 
Virgin Mary is to do all/ In no time he was back in exile at the French 
court, where the verdict was: 'When you listen to him you realise why 
he is here/ 



the two men had quarrelled, and Lambert therefore lacked the authority 
and status for the delicate job of reconciling army and parliamentary 
interests. Thus the Scottish command of the army was able to reimpose 
the Stuarts, to mixed feelings on the part of the English public. The 
Cromwellian vision faded, and the pace of English development slowed 
down. Had it persisted and, as was inevitable, accelerated still further, 
the industrial revolution would have occurred at the end of the seven- 
teenth century, and we would now be living in a twenty-first century 
world, with all its wonders and terrors. 

As it was, the Restoration put the clock half-back, in a thoroughly 
English spirit of muddled compromise. Some Commonwealth men were 
victimised; others prospered; it was all a lottery. Charles venomously 
settled some personal scores; but he was too weak, or too lazy, to under- 
take the effort and danger of a general proscription, so he merely dis- 
interred the corpses of some great English patriots. He had his shoulder 
of mutton and his whore. Some of the reforms were kept; others 
scrapped, to reappear again in different guises. Prerogative power could 
not be resurrected, but the King, in some mysterious way, was still 
expected to rule. The election of the Cavalier Parliament marked an 
enormous swing to the Right ; but within a year the majority melted 
away, and the last Stuart kings always faced opposition parliaments. 
In the Earl of Danby* Charles eventually found a parliamentary 
manager with some of the Cromwellian skills; but the amount of patron- 
age at his disposal was too limited to maintain a working majority, so 
Charles dispensed with Parliament and ruled through foreign subsidies. 
The return to Continentalism was bound to be fatal. The Cromwellian 
triumphs were too recent to allow public acquiescence in Charles's mis- 
management of external affairs: the disastrous war with the Dutch, 
the abrupt fall in the level of protection the State afforded to English 
trading and overseas interests, Charles's acquiescence, indeed active 
support, in the rise of a menacing French power on the Continent; the 
smell of secret treaties, so destructive of English interests that their 
terms could not be disclosed even to the King's closest advisers. More- 

* This man illustrates the confusion caused by the habit English politicians have of 
changing their names as they rise up the social scale. He began political life as Sir 
Thomas Osborne, Bart., then changed to Viscount Latimer (1673), Earl of Danby (1674), 
Marquess of Carmarthen (1689) and finally Duke of Leeds (1694). Even English cognos- 
centi sometimes get muddled. Thus, Fred Robinson, later Viscount Goderich, and later 
still Marquess of Ripon, foxed even his own Prime Minister, Canning. In August 1827 he 
wrote a paper on the situation in Portugal and told his secretary : 'Send it to Goderich and 
Robinson,' [\V.D. Jones: Prosperity Robinson (London, 1967), p. 152], 


over, Continentalism inevitabty reopened the Catholic question - the 
two were inseparable. The last Stuart kings were not Catholics in a 
meaningful sense ; it is hard to accept they even believed in God (though 
James was a Mariolater). But they needed Catholicism as the only 
dependable political underpinning of a regal State. Sooner or later they 
were bound to seek to restore it, to bind England to a Continental system 
so closely that a revolt against the throne would evoke a response from 
the entire European community. So the last years of Charles were a 
continuum with the reign of his brother. As he aged, 'Old Rowley' 
dropped his mask of tolerance, and became increasingly suspicious, 
secretive and vindictive. His court acquired the seaminess of his grand- 
father's dotage, as Evelyn noted just before Charles's death: 

. . , unexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming and all dissolution, and 
as it were total forgetfulness of God . . . The King sitting and toying with his 
concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland and Mazarin, etc. ; a French boy singing 
love-songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers 
and other dissolute persons were at basset round a large table, a bank of at 
least /2,ooo in gold before them . . . six days after, all was dust. 

Charles prophesied that his bizarre and eccentric brother would not 
last as King for more than four years, and he was right. But there was no 
change of policy, merely an increased haste to execute it, and an aggra- 
vated indifference to public opinion. After all, it was Charles who 
appointed Jeffreys Lord Chief Justice, with a mandate to smash the 
courts ; and the current against the Stuart monarchy set in years before 
James got to the throne. But James had his own unique contribution to 
make to the long catalogue of Stuart folly and stupidity. His rare uncon- 
sciousness of the minds and feelings of others was reflected even in 
love-making, for he sought to seduce Miss Hamilton by 'giving her 
accounts of broken legs and arms, dislocated shoulders, and other 
curious and entertaining adventures'. Where Charles had despised the 
English, James actively hated them: 'He knew the English people/ he 
said, 'and they could not be held to their duty by fair treatment.' And 
what was their duty? James spelt it out: 'to follow his wishes blindly, 
and to own an attachment to his interests that was without any quali- 
fication or reserve whatsoever/ Not surprisingly, even the English 
recusants, to a man, declined to join such an ill-found ship. James was 
above taking realistic measures to secure his throne (though by no 
means averse to judicial murder). An exasperated Jeffreys noted: 'The 
Virgin Mary is to do all/ In no time he was back in exile at the French 
court, where the verdict was: 'When you listen to him you realise why 
he is here/ 



So the English wearily set about the business, as they had done in the 
fifteenth century, of finding a royal line which would suit them. Parlia- 
ment, as it were, was an employer advertising a top vacancy; but the 
number of candidates was small, and the qualifications (which had 
nothing to do with worth, brains or talent) were in some respects strict. 
It was partly a question of geography. How could the focus of monar- 
chical interest be firmly anchored, as under the Tudors, in the south- 
east, instead of drifting away, as under the Stuarts it invariably did, to 
the Celtic fringe and the 'brute and beastly' north and west? William in 
went a long way towards solving this problem by involving England in 
a series of wars against the French which could be turned to commercial 
advantage ; and by tying up court and government, almost inextricably, 
with the business of the City, now in the full throes of the financial 
revolution which the Cromwellian tax-system had detonated. The throne 
acquired a stake in English commercial prosperity, thus reverting to the 
prudential methods of Edward iv f Henry vn, and his shrewd grand- 
daughter. But to align the court with the Home Counties was not 
enough: what was also required was an absolute guarantee of a for- 
malised Protestant succession, underwritten by statute, to rule out once 
and for all a drift back into the Continental system. Mary did not despise 
the English (like her father), though she preferred the Dutch; but she 
had no child. Anne rejoiced in her English mother and namesake, Anne 
Hyde (whose only recorded accomplishment was the ability to drain a 
quart-mug of beer without drawing breath), and prefaced her speeches, 
in a conscious echo of Elizabeth, with 'As I know myself to be entirely 
English.,/ But she, too, despite heroic efforts, could not produce a 
child who lived. So the prize went to the Hanoverians, who had an 
absolute vested interest in Protestantism, who put the pursuit and 
spending of money above any political principle whatsoever, who were 
devoted to the City, and who were, moreover, prolific. So Continentalism 
was scotched, to raise a feeble head only in 1715 and 1745, and English 
policy was able to oscillate safely between the Little Englandism of 
Harley, Walpole and Bute, and the Cromwellian tradition of Big 
Englandism upheld by Stanhope, Carteret and Chatham. Moreover, 
there were over 50 people with better hereditary claims to the throne 
than George i. It was the end of the Divine Right of Kings, and the 
monarchy was placed where the English wanted it ; on a business-like 
no-nonsense basis of convenience. 

It was the end of much else too. The civil wars and their aftermath, 
with their achievements and disappointments, produced an earthquake 
in English society, completed the work of the Reformation, destroyed 
the old certitudes and assumptions, and brought into question habits 


and attitudes which had been taken for granted almost since the beginning 
of time. In his vast compilations, Aubrey noted this great water- 
shed : the end of the old jousting court in Whitehall, the fact that gentle- 
men now travelled in carriages instead of on horseback, the replacement 
of their armed retinues by mere footmen, the disappearance of a multi- 
tude of antique customs and beliefs : 

Civill warres comeing on have putt out all these Rites, or customs quite out 
of fashion. Warres do not only extinguish Religion and Lawes but Supersti- 
tion ; and no Suffimen is a greater fugator of Phantosmes, than Gunpowder. 

Society ceased in great measure to be patriarchal. It was no accident 
that Filmer, the ideologist of royal absolutism, had compared the King 
to the father of the family. Now the children had revolted not merely 
against the King but against their own parents. Aubrey did not regret 
this aspect of the old days : 

The child perfectly loathed the sight of his parent, as the slave his Torturer, 
Gentlemen of 30 or 40 years old, fitt for any employment in the common 
wealth, were to stand like great mutes and fools bareheaded before their 
Parents; and the Daughters (grown woemen) were to stand at the Cup- 
boards side during the whole time of the proud mothers visit, unless (as 
the fashion was) 'twas desired that leave (forsooth) should be given to them to 
kneele upon cushions brought them by the servingman, after they had 
done sufficient penance standing . . . fathers and mothers slash't their 
daughters in the time of that Besome discipline when they were perfect 

Thus revolution introduced the concept of the generation gap, which 
has never since been bridged, and authority in all forms was increasingly 
subjected to the secular tests of reason. As Lord Halifax put it : 

The liberty of the late times gave men so much light, and diffused it so 
universally among the people that they are not now to be dealt with as they 
might have been in an age of less inquiry . . . Understandings ... are grown 
less humble than they were in former times ... the world is grown saucy, and 
expecteth reasons, and good ones too ... 

It had also grown more cynical and corrupt. In the hearts of the 
sophisticated, science-orientated revolutionaries of the Commonwealth, 
there was a spark of pure childlike innocence, the combination of reli- 
gious faith and a naive, secular idealism, the desire to do good on earth 
to their fellow men. Some Englishmen - a minority, no doubt, but a 
strong and purposeful one - really believed that they had a mission to 
accomplish, and that what they did should shine forth for all mankind 



to see. For once in English history, the convenient hypocrisies and 
fictions \vere cast aside. It was proudly proclaimed by the Common- 
wealth that the deeds of the court which tried and sentenced Charles 
Stuart would 'live and remain upon the record to the perpetual honour 
of the English state, who took no dark and doubtful way, but went in 
the open and plain path of Justice, Reason, Law and Religion*. Or, as 
Milton \\Tote: 'God has inspired the English to be the first of mankind 
who have not hesitated to judge and condemn their king/* It took an 
enviable self-confidence to say such things, and in the confused decades 
which followed the Restoration, in the empirical search for stability at 
the cost of almost any principle, that self-confidence evaporated, and 
the English turned again to draw on their bottomless wells of hypocrisy. 
The settlement of 1689 knocked the heart out of religion as a thing 
men would die for. The history of those years was skilfully rewritten, 
shrouded in obscurity and double-think, made to seem inevitable, a 
dispensation of a Whig providence and not the violent action of real 
human beings. Bishop Hooper of Bath and Wells epitomised the new 
revisionist spirit of cynicism : 

The Revolution "of 1688] was not to be boasted of, to make a precedent, but 
we ought to throw a mantle over it, and rather call it a vacancy or abdication ; 
and the Original Compact were two very dangerous words, not to be men- 
tioned without a great deal of caution; that they who examined the Revolu- 
tion too nicely were no friends to it, for at that rate the crown would roll like a 
ball, and never be fixed. 

Thus a revolutionary State, in which the monarch was a mere con- 
venience, was cunningly legitimised in the interests of the propertied 
classes who had benefited from it. James n had not been expelled ; he had 
'made off', as the police say; England now had a perfect constitution, 
and force was never again to be used to obtain redress except in circum- 
stances so remote as to be unimaginable. The new-speak doctrine was 

* The trial was fully reported in six licensed newspapers, two of which issued supple- 
ments containing the verbatim record (the three unlicensed royalist newspapers refused 
to report it). The only form of censorship was to cut out references to differences of 
opinion among the judges, which emerged at the regicide trials in 1660. Contempt of 
court was by no means strictly enforced. When Bradshaw said the King was charged in 
the name of the people of England, Lady Fairfax, sitting masked in the gallery, shouted : 
'Not half, not a quarter of the people of England. Oliver Cromwell is a traitor/ When she 
continued her noise, the guards levelled their muskets at the gallery ('By this time/ said 
one sitting there, 'we \\ere very hush*), but she was allowed to slip away unpunished. 
Fairfax's failure, after the defeat of the King, to play the role in the political debates 
(notably at Putney) which his position demanded, is attributed to his stammer; but 
Lady Fairfax's strident views must also have been a factor. For the trial, see C. V. Wedg- 
wood's essay in The English Civil War and After, 1642-58, edited by R.H. Parry (London, 


unashamedly exposed to Parliament by Walpole, the practical ideologist 
of constitutional stability: 

Resistance is no where enacted to be legal but subjected to all the laws now 
in being to the greatest penalties ; tis what is not, cannot, nor ought ever to be 
described, or affirmed in any positive law, to be excusable. When, and upon 
what never to be expected occasions, it may be exercised, no man can foresee ; 
and ought never to be thought of but when an utter subversion of the realm 
threaten the whole frame of a constitution and no redress can otherwise be 
hoped for. 

But of course political stability could not be bought merely by a foggy 
and meaningless ideology, a kind of constitutional opium. Something 
more practical was required. By accident, the English managing classes 
found the answer: bribery. There was, of course, nothing new in the 
principle - there is rarely anything entirely new in English public life. 
English governments had always sought survival by permitting enough 
powerful individuals and families a hand in the till to guarantee an 
adequate basis of support. With ups and downs, the system had sur- 
vived until the end of the sixteenth century, but even then it required 
a fine sense of balance, of the kind Elizabeth and the Cecils possessed. 
With the rise of the gentry class, and their absolute domination of the 
Commons, too many hands were stretched out, and the Government 
still was too small to satisfy enough of them to guarantee a parliamen- 
tary majority. The enormous expansion of government activities under 
the Protectorate pointed the way to a possible solution, as did its success 
in tapping for tax purposes a rapidly growing national income. The trend 
was reinforced by the long wars with France which created thousands of 
new government jobs, civil and military, not only in central government 
but in the new customs and excise services which financed it. Jobs 
directly under the control of the court fell in numbers both absolutelv 
(from about 1,500 under Charles n to about 1,000 under George i) and 
relatively; but the number controlled by ministers rose many-fold. 
There were now, to vary the metaphor, many more, if smaller, slices of 
an infinitely larger cake. Or, as the Duke of Newcastle put it, 'enough 
pasture to feed all the beasts'. A seat in the Commons now became not 
merely a mark of status but a definite commercial property, whose sale 
could be advertised in the newspapers. By the turn of the century, it 
was noted: 'Nothing is now more common than for members first to buy 
[the electors'] voice and then sell their votes, which are grown very good 
merchandise at court'. In the seventeenth century, no government 
succeeded in winning a parliamentary election (except the illusory 
victory of 1661) ; in the eighteenth century no government lost one. 



The spoils system inevitably reduced the popular element of partici- 
pation in choosing parliaments. In the early seventeenth century, 
opposition parliaments had tended to enlarge the suffrage by tinkering 
with the borough corporations; after 1688 the process was reversed, 
except in the few popular constituencies, where the gentry had been 
driven from the field by urban spread. And fewer and fewer electors could 
in practice cast their votes freely - perhaps only 5 per cent out of 200,000 
by 1750. There was too much money at stake to allow the giddy multitude 
to sway results. Corporations themselves aided the process by restricting 
membership : the fewer the voters, the greater the bribes for those who 
still had the vote. The cost of a borough seat rose rapidly in the eigh- 
teenth century, from an average of 1,500 to 5,000; and when the life 
of Parliament was extended to seven years, security of tenure thus 
improved, and the price rose still higher. So huge was the cost of a 
contested election that the number of contests dropped sharply ; and one 
fight might settle the fate of a seat for a generation. 

The elements of the new system of government were created in 1688 ; 
but it took more than 30 years, and the manipulative skill of a Walpole, 
before it could be made to work smoothly. By a process of trial and 
error, he completed the debauching of the political nation. He believed 
in corruption with a passion and intensity which other men brought to 
religion. His own depredations were vast, continuous and highly pro- 
fessional.* But he ensured that others got their due strictly in accor- 
dance with the influence they had to offer, beginning with the King, 
his two mistresses (one short and fat, the other tall and thin), his German 
advisers, Bothmar and Bernstorff, his Turkish servants, Mohammed 
and Mustapha, and working steadily downwards. Government became 
a joint-stock company in which men invested in the hope of dividends. 
Sometimes it was possible to draw up a neat balance-sheet. Thus, the 
Duke of Chandos spent 14,000 in four years bribing the King's German 
ministers and one of his mistresses ; in return he got a peerage for his 
father, the Deanery of Carlisle for his brother, and a court position for 
his son. But not everyone entered the game with the same objects. Some, 
like Walpole, sought power for money (as well as for its own sake) ; others, 

* In the four years 1714-17, f or instance, i 09, 208 45 gd passed through Walpole's hands, 
of which 61,778 145 9d was invested, the rest spent. He grabbed (not necessarily illeg- 
ally! much larger sums when he became the chief minister. He must have spent about 
'250,000 on Houghton, and his collection of paintings alone was valued at nearly 
"35,000 at his death. It cost him about 200 a day to entertain his friends at Houghton; 
in 1733, for instance, the bill from one of his wine-merchants came to 1,118 125 lod. As 
the estate he inherited was worth only 2,000 a year, and encumbered, the overwhelming 
bulk of Walpole's vast expenditure must have come from public funds. See J.H. Plumb: 
Siy Robert IValpole: The Making of a Statesman (London, 1956), and The King's Minister 
(London, 1960). 



like the Duke of Newcastle, spent money to acquire power. High office 
left men very much poorer, as well as very much richer.* Moreover, the 
system only worked smoothly when the political temperature was low ; if 
war or principles raised their ugly heads, it tended to break down. About 
150 backwoods squires stood outside the circle of corruption and 
retained their political freedom. Silent and acquiescent as a rule, they 
could become unpredictable in moments of crisis. Boswell recorded some 
shrewd remarks by an old parliamentary hand, almost certainly Burke: 

The House of Commons is a mixed body. It is a mass by no means pure ; 
but neither is it wholly corrupt, though there is a large proportion of corrup- 
tion in it. There are many Members who generally go with the Minister, who 
will not go all lengths. There are many honest well-meaning country gentle- 
men who are in parliament only to keep up the consequences of their families. 
Upon most of these a good speech will have influence. 

Just so. As Walpole perceived, to manage the Commons successfully, 
one must remain a member of it ; the temptation to take a peerage as the 
reward of office was great; most leading ministers, from the Cecils to 
Chatham, succumbed to it, to their cost; Walpole preferred to enter the 
Elysian Fields only on final retirement. But even he, in the end, could 
not avoid the terrible uncertainties of war. Moreover, the growth of 
political stability made opposition respectable, safe, even (in the long 
run) profitable. So long as it grouped itself around the heir apparent, it 
remained personal and factional and hence no threat to the system. But 
George in did not have an heir until he was already on the throne. For want 
of a personal focus, opposition began to move into the dangerous waters 
of ideology. The system thus contained the seeds of its own destruction. 

Meanwhile, what had happened to the divine English mission? Were 
the English still the chosen race? It was beginning to look increasingly 
doubtful. For one thing, the growth of historical studies cast a more 
accurate and less sensational light on English origins. The myth did not 

* In 1797, after half a century of running seven seats {at 3,000 apiece), Lord Eliot 
calculated he had lost by his operations. Pitt the Younger left debts of {40,000. Lord 
Liverpool saw his fortune shrink in 33 years of office. Canning spent 60,000, out of his 
wife's fortune of /i 00,000, on politics. On the other hand, Palmerston, who spent over 40 
years in office, needed his official salary to keep solvent [see Jasper Ridley : Palmerston, 
(1970)]. The last man to make a suspect fortune from office in this country was Lloyd 
George. Nowadays, however, top politicians can make vast sums by selling their memoirs, 
a fashion set by" Churchill. In recent years, figures of 100,000, '240,000 and 250,000 
have been paid for world rights of prime ministerial opera ; 50,000 went to a mere junior 
minister. The system, to my mind, is at least partly abusive, since it is based on the 
convention that politicians allow each other access to official papers while den ying it to 
the public, thus multiplying by many times the commercial value of what they write. 



survive the inspection of professional antiquaries. For another, the 
English were now liable to be reminded, unceremoniously, that their 
race, far from possessing the purity which the apostolic assignment 
might suppose, was in all essentials mongrel. In 1701, exasperated by 
the filthy manner in which the English treated foreigners, especially 
Dutchmen, Daniel Defoe rattled off a brilliant piece of doggerel, The 
True-Born Englishman, which achieved enormous popularity. The 
English, he pointed out, had nothing to be proud of in their origins. They 
were the 'barbarous offspring' of the 'dregs of armies', an 'amphibious ill- 
born mob', the progeny of repeated invasions by innumerable peoples: 

A Turkish horse can show more history 

To prove his well-descended family. 

. . . These are the heroes that despise the Dutch 

And rail at new-come foreigners so much, 

Forgetting that themselves are all derived 

From the most scoundrel race that ever lived; 

Moreover, the process was still going on ; 

We have been Europe's sink, the jakes where she 
Voids all her offal outcast progeny 

The truth, concluded Defoe, was that a true-born Englishman was 'a 
man akin to all the universe'. 

The success of this sally indicated that some Englishmen, at least, 
were learning to laugh at their racial pretensions ; though there was no 
observable decline in their active hostility to foreigners, either at home 
or abroad, as the ludicrous affair of Captain Jenkins* Ear showed. Indeed 
the circumstances of this war reflected the degeneration of a sense of 
mission from one in which religious duty was paramount, and com- 
mercial advantages merely secondary, to one \vholly inspired by secular 
and materialistic motives. The voice of the ne\v mood was undoubtedly 
James Thomson's. He rejoiced not only in the beauty of Britannia 
('Heavens! what a goodly prospect spreads around') but more emphatic- 
ally, and repeatedly, in England's world-wide commercial mission: not 
only in 'Rule Britannia', the song from his masque Alfred (1740), which 
became a second national anthem, but in dozens of poems. The agency 
in England's role has changed from a Biblical God to a mysterious, 
unnamed providence : 

For Britons, chief, 

It was reserv'd, with star-directed Prow, 
To dare the middle Deep, and drive assur'd 
To distant Nations thro' the painless Main 

Liberty, 1736 



England, in fact, has already become a kind of economic policeman, 
combining moral authority, and business wisdom : 

And as you ride sublimely round the World, 
Make every Vessel stoop, make every State 
At once their Welfare and their Duty know 
This is your Glory; this your Wisdom; this 
The native Power for which you were designed 
By Fate 

Thomson, with a City accountant's eye, stresses 'this unexpensive 
Power' and the fact that trade, not territory, is England's object: 

. . . unencumber'd with the Bulk immense 

Of Conquest, whence huge Empire rose, and fell. 

Britannia, 1729 

This bombastic tone is somehow more offensive than the equally 
emphatic, but naive, credulous and hopeful tone of Milton and Foxe.* 
As God faded into the background, profit eased itself on to the shoulders 
of English racism. During the late seventeenth century, the inspiration 
of English overseas ventures was transformed. Of course, trade had 
always been an object. The younger Hakluyt, who believed in the divine 
mission as strongly as any Elizabethan Protestant, argued in his 
Discourse of Western Planting, written at Ralegh's request, that coloni- 
sation of North America would solve unemployment by siphoning off 
surplus population, make England independent of other suppliers of 
raw materials, especially timber, and increase her export markets for 
finished goods. But it \vould also, and more importantly, be a means to 
bring the Indians 'to civility* ; it would enable England to break free 
economically from a corrupt and incorrigible Europe; it would be 'a 
place of safety ... if change of religion or civil wars should happen in 
this realm'. North America 'God hath reserved to be reduced unto 
Christian civility by the English nation 1 . Ralegh, who liked the Indians 
(it was reciprocated), thought the monstrous cruelty of the Spanish in 
America had earned them the vengeance of God, and that it was 
England's duty to take over responsibility for the entire continent ; had 
he been permitted to carry out his great 'western design', there is at 

* Horace Walpole shrewdly saw through the hypocrisy with which the English invested 
'commerce' and 'trade' as a justification for aggression and war. He wrote to Sir Horace 
Mann (26 May 1762) : 'I am a bad Englishman, because I think the advantages of com- 
merce are dearly bought for some by the lives of many more . . . every age has some 
ostentatious system to excuse the havoc it commits. Conquest, honour, chivalry, religion, 
balance of power, commerce, no matter what, mankind must bleed, and take a term for a 



least a possibility that he would have saved vast territories from sense- 
less plunder and degradation, and that Latin America would be a much 
happier place today. Farther north, too, colonies were established not 
only to further religious freedom, as in Massachusetts, but to embody 
advanced political ideas. The Virginia Company was an attempt to carry 
out some of Ralegh's notions; Sir Edwin Sandys, its Treasurer and 
James 1's peculiar object of hatred, believed all kings had originally been 
elected. Like the Pilgrims, he introduced secret balloting (which Charles 
I forbade in all colonies), and James correctly described the company as 
'but a seminary to a seditious parliament*. Many leading parliamentary 
radicals were involved in the Providence Island venture, and there can 
be no doubt that political experiments in America stiffened the refor- 
mist spirit of the Long Parliament. Embedded in the chauvinism of 
Cromwell's foreign policy was a powerful streak of idealism : Milton, in 
drawing up England's official case for war against Spain, gives the bestial 
behaviour of the conquistadores as a prime justification. 

Yet the colonies, right from the start, were a perfect mirror of English 
virtues and vices, an extraordinary mixture of cupidity and idealism, of 
legalism and glaring anomalies, devoid of any logic or system, and (most 
characteristically) promoting glaring innovation under the guise of 
tradition. Where Hakluyt had called for colonies to water the parched 
minds of the heathen with 'the swete and lively liquor of the Gospel', 
Bacon rightly pointed out that the actual object was 'but gold and 
silver and temporal profit'. Massachusetts persecuted Quakers and 
witches ; but it rarely used the death penalty, it did not imprison for 
debt, it permitted civil marriage and it raised the legal status of women. 
Recent custom was force-fed to produce antiquity, so that as early as 
1652 Barbados petitioned to keep its assembly, as it was 'the ancient 
and usual custom here'. Theoretically, Pennsylvania was a private 
estate, a proprietary colony: but it had a free assembly, the object of its 
penal code was reformation rather than retribution, and its record with 
the Indians was almost unsullied ; its founder even proposed a league of 
nations and a sovereign European parliament. When the English brought 
Negro slavery to the Caribbean in the wake of Cromwell's annexation 
of Jamaica, they argued that the Indians would die if forced to do heavy 
plantation work, and that for the virile Africans transportation was the 
means of salvation in the next world, and a modest comfort in this. This 
welter of muddled thinking produced some curious monsters. In the 
Restoration period, attempts were made to set up semi-feudal societies, 
as the crusaders had done in twelfth-century Syria. One constitution, 
drawn up by Locke in 1669, provided for county divisions, each sub- 
divided into seignories, owned by the proprietors, and baronies, owned 



by local nobles called caciques and landgraves. Land would also be held 
by freemen, who would elect members to the lower house of Parliament, 
while nobles and proprietors would form the other estates. 

But most colonies were founded on a form of contract between rulers 
and ruled, modelled on the original social contract which, people 
believed, had been drawn up in Anglo-Saxon times or even earlier. They 
thus possessed written constitutions, of a sort, but drawn up in accor- 
dance with current commercial practice : hence, if England was a tradi- 
tionalist agrarian society which eventually became a commercial one, 
America was a commercial society ah initio - and therein lies a very 
significant difference. Moreover, it was also, from the start, highly 
legalistic: its ideological origins date from a period when English parlia- 
mentary lawyers were using the common law to rewrite history and 
carry through a constitutional revolution. There was, with important 
differences, a parallel development on both sides of the Atlantic. The 
colonies welcomed the Commonwealth and Protectorate; they were 
suspicious of the Restoration, and became actively hostile when 
James 11, following in the steps of Richelieu, started to annul charters, 
and draw the colonies into a single royal dominion. In 1688 when news 
of the English revolution reached America, the New Englanders arrested 
their royal governors, claiming the right of constitutional resistance to 
an illegal regime, and petitioned Parliament to legalise their acts ex post 
facto. In a curious way, their behaviour mirrored almost exactly what 
the Britons had done in 410, and was ominous for the future of what men 
were already beginning to call the British Empire. 

England lost the American colonies because Englishmen had already 
lost their belief in the divine mission. The mission was dynamic; it 
demanded purposeful efforts towards definite ends; it presupposed an 
objective, and a programme of means to attain it; it implied a society 
in motion, hurtling ever faster towards a millennium; it raised huge 
questions and demanded clear answers. Why are we here ? What task 
has providence give us? What, then, must we do to discharge it? God 
was not a policeman, as in the medieval world, the ultimate resort for 
the forces of terrestrial order, but an imperious and scrutable task- 
master, the master builder of a vast and urgent work of construction, 
issuing well-defined commands to his servants. Such a belief is incom- 
patible with stability : and the English, after a century of unrest and 
experiment, wanted stability, or were presumed to do so - or, in any 
event, were given it. But stability has to be paid for. The price, in the 
first instance, was the abandonment of the mission to act as divine 
agents in a world reformation; or, rather, to down-grade the mission 
morally to the mere commercial purpose of expanding world trade, 



something which, by its nature, was self-generating. But, secondly, a 
restless nation could only be induced, in practice, to abdicate from its 
role as God's people, and thus forfeit its guarantee of eternal felicity, 
by a substantial quid pro quo on earth. The nation, or at least the poli- 
tical nation, had to be bribed into quiescence; and this was done. As 
Walpole put it, quiete non movere; sleeping dogs would safely lie, if 
they were well fed first. 

It is a sad comment on human societies that they can usually be 
persuaded to accept bribery as a system of government, provided the 
circle of corruption is wide enough. As we have seen, this became pos- 
sible in the early eighteenth century with the expansion of the State. 
But if the circle was large, it still had very definite limits, and excluded 
whole categories of people: one might argue that it broke down at the 
end of the eighteenth century because, with the growth of population, 
the area of exclusion became intolerably large. But it also excluded 
whole nations. Thanks to the Act of Union, Walpole found it desirable 
to bring Scotland into the system, for the votes it exercised in both 
Houses of Parliament were valuable and worth buying. Thus Scotland, 
or at least the lowlands, became a contented and increasingly prosperous 
member of the community; indeed most Englishmen argued fiercely 
that the Scots got far more than their fair share of the spoils. But Ireland 
was rigorously excluded. Its own parliament was emasculated by the 
provisions of Poyning's Law, which forbade Irish legislation without 
the permission of the English Privy Council ; and, of course, it had no 
votes to offer at Westminster. Hence Irish patronage was reserved, very 
largely, for Englishmen, in both Church and State; and yet another 
governing class was superimposed on the geological layers of injustice 
which the Celtic Irish carried. Rich and poor, Catholic or Protestant, the 
Irish resented the unfairness of it all. But though they might cry to 
heaven for vengeance, they could not get it on earth, for Ireland lay 
under the shadows of English guns. With America it was a different 
matter. America, too, had no votes to deliver at Westminster; she, too, 
was therefore very largely excluded from the spoils system ; but America 
was 3,000 miles, and six weeks, away from the sources of English 
authority. This made a crucial difference, especially when, for a brief 
moment, England lost absolute control of the sea. 

Would America have remained loyal if enough Americans had been 
given a share of the spoils? This was asked (though not quite in these 
terms] at the time. Jefferson wrote in the first draft of the Declaration of 
Independence: 'We might have been a great and free people together,' 
but was forced by his colleagues to delete the phrase. The question has 
been asked many times since. In 1900, Lord Rosebery, the first man to 



popularise the phrase 'the British Commonwealth*, told the Glasgow 
students in his Rectorial Address that 'but for a small incident', America 
would in time have become the senior partner in a vast oceanic 
dominion, the seat of government would have been 'moved solemnly 
across the Atlantic, and Britain would have become the historical shrine 
and the European outpost of the world empire'. The 'small incident' was 
Pitt's acceptance of a peerage which, said Rosebery, deprived him of 
'his sanity and his authority' and thus disabled him from preventing 
the breach. 

History is, indeed, composed of small incidents; but the difficulty was 
more serious than Rosebery supposed. It might, of course, have' been 
solved if Americans had been accorded some form of imperial represen- 
tation, either in America or at Westminster, for this would automatically 
have earned them an appropriate quota of the spoils. But in both cases 
there were insuperable constitutional objections. The whole theory and 
practice of English stability rested on the assumption that the English 
constitution had reached its final form, and had achieved balanced 
perfection. To set up an American parliament with limited powers (for 
instance, over taxation) would mean a division of sovereignty which 
would make the constitution unworkable. As Blackstone, the arbiter of 
constitutional theory in the eighteenth century (as Coke was in the 
seventeenth), insisted: 'there is and must be in all [forms of govern- 
ment] a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in 
which the jura summa imperil, or the rights of sovereignty, reside'. In 
England this was Parliament, whose actions 'no power on earth 
can undoe'. Such absolute sovereignty was the only alternative to the 
horrors of a written constitution (which, of course, the Americans did 
not fear). Power to tax 'is a necessary part of every supreme legislative 
authority'; and, therefore, if Parliament 'have not that power over 
America they have none, and then America is at once a kingdom of 

So much for a local parliament in America. What of representation in 
Westminster? Here the objections were still more weighty. America was 
a series of joint-stock companies; its local directors, or delegates, in its 
colonial assemblies were strictly mandated by those who appointed 
them: such control by the electorate is central to the whole theory of 
American politics, then as now, and helps to explain why the United 
States has never developed ideological parties. But English theory was 
entirely different; it had to be different in order to justify the 'perfect 
constitution', which in fact was an illogical shambles. English Members 
of Parliament were not delegates of their voters; they were trustees of a 
nation, indeed of an empire. How could an MP be delegated by a close 



or a pocket borough ? Xo : each and every M P was himself a custodian of 
the public interest, acting from his own judgment and conscience (as 
Burke made laboriously clear to the electors of Bristol). The Member for 
Old Sarum, which had no actual voters at all, was just as capable (in- 
deed more capable, since disinterested himself) of representing the true 
interests of the Americans as a man put forward by a demanding rabble 
in Massachusetts. When Americans argued that it was intolerable that 
flourishing cities like Boston and Philadelphia should have no voice in 
Westminster, the English establishment retorted that neither did Man- 
chester, Birmingham or Sheffield. But this cut absolutely no ice in 
America. The raucous Boston demagogue James Otis simply replied: 
'If those now so considerable places are not represented, they ought to 
be/ The truth is, the Americans could not be accorded constitutional 
rights without granting them to the vast, unrepresented multitudes in 
England itself; this would make the spoils system, and so the 'balanced 
constitution 1 , unworkable, and bring about a return to anarchy. The 
English ruling class had to choose between stability and empire ; and, 
much as they valued both, they chose stability, as they were again to do 
in the mid-twentieth century. 

Thus the axis of attack deployed by the American independence 
movement sprang from a radical, left-wing critique of the English 
constitution. The Americans conceded that the concept was sound; but, 
as Englishmen had argued throughout history, it had somehow got per- 
verted, and a reform - a return to its pristine and perfect origins - was 
urgently needed. For one thing, it was supposed to guarantee property 
as sacrosanct ; how could it be said to do this, when the goods of Ameri- 
cans could be seized by King's officers over whom they had no control ? 
As Massachusetts said to Chatham in 1768: That grand principle in 
nature, "that what a man hath honestly acquired is absolutely and 
uncontrollably his own", this principle is established as a fundamental 
rule in the British Constitution.' The Americans had a splendid pre- 
cedent, writ large in history: they went back to 1640. 'What we did/ 
said Jefferson, 'was with the help of Rush worth, whom we rummaged 
over for revolutionary precedents of those days/ The United States was 
thus the posthumous child of the Long Parliament.* 

* Non-English influences on the American rebels were of little importance. In 1774 
John Adams cited Plato as an advocate of equality and self-government; but he had not 
then read the Republic ; when he finally did so, he was so shocked he thought it must be 
a satire! WUkes's successful skirmishings with the Commons played a notable part in 
educating the Americans in popular opposition; so did the writings of radicals like 
Priestley, and, above all, Paine. It was Paine, in Common Sense (1776) who finally des- 
troyed, for the Americans, the mystique of the English constitution. The concept of 
balance, he said, was nonsense; what liberty existed in England was 'wholly owing to the 
constitution of thi- people and not to the constitution of the government'. Where was the 



Indeed, the Americans of the 17605 and i/jos, like the English gentry 
of 1640, were armed with a ramifying, circumstantial and ;to them at 
least) utterly convincing conspiracy theory. They drew heavily for 
inspiration from both right- and left-wing critics' of the Walpolean 
system, as perpetuated under Bute and George in. On the Left thev 
read and admired the Independent Whig, the Letters of Cato in the 
London Journal, Bishop Benjamin Hoadley's rejection of the theory of 
submission, Molesworth's description of how the free state of Denmark 
degenerated into absolutism. On the Right they rejoiced in the scathing 
assaults on corruption conducted by Bolingbroke's Craftsman. They 
drew heavily on the Whig theory put forward by the Huguenot exile 
Thoyras, in his Histoire d'Angleterre (translated 1725-31) which warned 
of the 'formed design' of the Tories to restore Stuart absolutism. After 
1763, when the taxation issue became acute, the menace appeared to be 
taking definite shape, albeit under a Hanoverian. Sir Lewis Xamier may 
have proved from the documents that George in was not operating a 
personal Tory government ; contemporary Americans did not agree with 

To be sure, critics of the English system were taken far more seriously 
in America than they were in their own country. Yet many well in- 
formed Englishmen also believed in the conspiracy theory. Liberty 
appeared to be on the retreat everywhere in the world; barbarous 
tyrannies were growing in strength and numbers daily, in Asia and 
Africa as well as Europe. Burke warned in his Thoughts on the Present 
Discontents that 'a certain set of intriguing men ... to secure to the court 
the unlimited and uncontrolled use of its own vast influence under the 
sole direction of its own private favour [were pursuing] a scheme for 
undermining all the foundations of our freedom*. Carried across the 
Atlantic, the conspiracy theory assumed weird and wonderful forms, 
into which historical myth, race prejudice and current events 
all fitted with astonishing aptness. A relatively harmless proposal to 
appoint bishops in America was, said John Adams, a plan to impose 
'the canon and feudal law*. Colonial officials, especially customs and 
excise men - hated in America and England alike - were the prime agents 
of the conspiracy; in the words of Otis, 'a little, dirty, drinking, 
drabbing, contaminated knot of thieves, beggars, and transports . . . made 
up of Turks, Jews, and other infidels, with a few renegade Christians 
and Catholics'. Behind them came the 'standing army* of redcoats, 
against which all good English Whigs had warned, now billeted in 

King in America? Til tell you. friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of 
mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain.' See Bernard Bailyn's analysis, The 
Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard, 



Massachusetts, and providing in the 'Boston Massacre' a clear portent 
of things to come. 

James Otis, the most successful, rabid and hysterical of the American 
independence propagandists, formulated the New England theory of 
history. The Saxons had a Parliament universally elected by all free- 
holders; this was overthrown by the Normans; then, through centuries 
of struggle, culminating in the crisis precipitated by the 'execrable race 
of the Stuarts 1 , liberty had gradually been restored in 'that happy estab- 
lishment which Great Britain has since enjoyed'. But this was itself now 
in peril ; just as the Saxons had migrated to England in search of liberty, 
so the Americans had crossed the ocean to create a purer and freer 
England. There was a great deal more of such nonsense. One of the 
ironies of the American struggle is that the English, for the first time, 
faced a people who could dish out quantities of hypocritical humbug and 
sanctimonious myth-making of precisely the type they themselves had 

The conspiracy myth took every conceivable form, and was often 
self-contradictory. But even the most pro-English elements in America 
came to feel there was something in it, as exasperated English govern- 
ments resorted to coercion in the early 17705. Some believed the con- 
spiracy dated back to the restoration of Charles n ; others to Walpole, or 
to 1763. Bute was often assigned the role of villain ; his retirement was a 
subterfuge; he would return \\ith his 'Scotch-barbarian troops'. Alter- 
natively, or in addition, a Stuart-Tory faction was to blame, backed by 
the 'corrupt, Frenchified party in the nation', acting 'not improbably 
in the interests of the houses of Bourbon and the Pretender'. But all 
versions concentrated on the gross, visible and indeed acknowledged 
corruption of the English political system, particularly in electioneering, 
which was emasculating a once stern and unbending nation, as Rome 
had been ruined, and turning England into 'an old, wrinkled, withered, 
worn-out hag'. In 1770, the Boston Town Meeting summed the whole 
thing up: 

A series of occurrencies, many recent events . . . afford great reason to 
believe that a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been 
laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty . . . The august 
and once-revered fortress of English freedom - the admirable work of ages - 
the BRITISH CONSTITUTION seems fast tottering into fatal and inevitable 
ruin. The dreadful catastrophe threatens universal havoc, and presents an 
awful warning to hazard all unless, peradventure, we in these distant con- 
fines of the earth may prevent being totally overwhelmed and buried under 
the ruins of our most established rights. 

However - and it is at this point that the Americans snatched the 



racial myth, lock, stock and barrel, from the English - America was 
forewarned, just in time. She would save herself, and preserve the flame 
of liberty in 'the country of free men', the asylum, and the last, to which 
such may yet flee from the common deluge'. America 'may even have the 
great felicity and honor to ... keep Britain herself fromVuin'. America 
would be 'the principal seat of that glorious kingdom which Christ shall 
erect upon earth in the latter days' and would 'build an empire on the 
ruins of Great Britain'. Thus: 'The hand of God was in America now 
giving a new epoch to the history of the world/ From this, it was only a 
short step to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty inviting the 'poor 
huddled masses' to seek refuge from the horrors of Europe. 

It was all very well. But a myth which had a certain validity, a certain 
honest and genuine enthusiasm behind it in seventeenth-century Eng- 
land, faced with a real and dangerous (if incompetent) Stuart tyranny, 
had an altogether more suspect and specious ring about it in the age of 
Enlightenment. The version of history which the new myth itself fos- 
tered - of a nation of heroes rising as one man against a ferocious and 
alien imperialism - cannot survive a careful reading of the documents. 
George HI was probably nearer the truth when he maintained that 
certain Americans were in a conspiracy against him. His famous letter 
to Lord North, setting out the ruinous consequences to the kingdom and 
the Empire if the slightest concession of principle were made to the 
American case, was wholly and ludicrously belied by subsequent events; 
it can be cited as an object-lesson in folly and misapprehension to any 
imperial power which fears that one timely and justified withdrawal 
will imperil the entire structure. It provides, for instance, powerful 
and ironical ammunition against the American presence in south-east 
Asia. Nevertheless, George was right in believing that the pacesetters 
among the American rebels did not want a compromise settlement in 
any form whatsoever ; they wanted, almost from the very start of the con- 
troversy, outright and absolute independence ; and they were prepared 
to use any means to persuade the bulk of the American settlers to seize 

No one who studies the published correspondence, notably the care- 
ful letters of Governor Bernard of Massachusetts, can have any doubt 

* George in was the first exponent of the 'Domino Theory' (letter to North, u June 
1779) ; in the case of Ireland he was not so wide of the mark, for the Irish used the Ameri- 
can crisis to rid themselves of Poyning's Law, and the 1798 rebellion was clearly related 
to American experience. George could also claim, like President Nixon, the support of the 
'silent majority*. As Rockingham wrote despondently to Burke: 'Violent measures to- 
wards America are freely adopted and countenanced by a majority of individuals of all 
ranks, professions or occupations, in this country.' But military defeat inevitably brought 
despondency, and so a decisive change in English public opinion. On the news of 
Saratoga, Rockingham wrote : 'My heart is at ease/ 



that the independence movement was the work of a minority, and that 
until the actual fighting started it was a very small minority. The real 
practical grievances were slight. English legislation, resented in theory, 
was generally evaded in practice. The customs and excise, the acts 
restricting American manufactures, could not be, and indeed were not, 
enforced; on the contrary, they created a huge vested interest in syste- 
matic smuggling and evasion, of which the 'patriots' were among the 
ringleaders and principal beneficiaries. When outrages were committed 
against the authorities, it was very rare for anyone to be punished ; con- 
victions could not be secured, because of perjured evidence; it was in 
fact like Ireland, in this respect ; but, unlike Ireland, there was no evi- 
dence of arbitrary oppression. Force, not argument, was the chosen 
method of the patriots right from the start. It was, in a sense, the only 
method open to them, for the mass of the people were indifferent or 
loyalist. As Bernard put it: 'Though the driven and the led are many, 
the drivers and the leaders are few/ The independence movement was 
an unholy alliance between the great Southern landowners, the swarm- 
ing legal profession, and the Boston city mob, the first two groups 
manipulating the third from behind the scenes. America was born in 
organised violence masquerading as idealism. Loyalists and officials, 
printers who refused to publish subversive propaganda (often barefaced 
lies), merchants who declined to boycott English goods, went in peril of 
their lives; they were often assaulted or assassinated, their families 
terrorised, their houses destroyed. In Boston the Lieutenant-Governor's 
house, designed by Inigo Jones, and containing a priceless collection of 
manuscripts and papers, was burnt to the ground ; his family had been 
settled there for 130 years; but Massachusetts passed an act of indem- 
nity for the rioters. The Boston Massacre itself was a deliberately pro- 
voked incident, as the legal depositions show; it was ruthlessly exploited 
as atrocity propaganda. The aim of at least some of the patriots was to 
goad the authorities into sending troops, and then to goad the troops 
into savage reprisals. Why else, in April 1775, did the insurgents scalp 
and mutilate bewildered British redcoats, as we know from the letters of 
Anne Hulton ? Such tactics have become familiar to us, in the terrible 
guerrilla struggles of our own lifetime. 

Many well-informed Americans themselves questioned the motives of 
the popular leaders. It was known that Otis had been bitterly against 
authority since his father was refused a judgeship. Others had a direct 
financial interest in defiance: the Tea Party was carried out by the 
Boston smuggling interest with the deliberate object of keeping up the 
price of contraband; the fact that it brought massive retaliation was a 
bonus, Many of the populists were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. 



Speaker Joseph Galloway of the Pennsylvania Assembly, whose com- 
promise plan was ruthlessly scotched - indeed erased from the journals 
of Congress - asserted that many of the ringleaders were hopelessly 
in debt to British merchants, and believed independence alone could 
keep them solvent.* It was, in a sense, a Cat aline conspiracy. As in the 
Russia of 1917 a small group of single-minded and ruthless men hustled 
along a multitude. A Maryland merchant said bitterly of the first Con- 
tinental Congress: '[Sam] Adams with his crew and the haughty Sultans 
of the South juggled the whole conclave of delegates/ 

Once warfare was engaged, the inevitable polarisation took place. 
Even so, it is doubtful whether, at any time, a majority of the colonists 
actively favoured independence. A quarter of the nation remained 
neutral; a quarter was loyalist - 40,000 of them later migrated to 
Canada, and many more wished, but could not afford or feared, to go. 
One of the loyalists who returned, in disgust, to England, was the 
Reverend Charles Woodmason, who knew from his own experiences in 
South Carolina that the political structure of the States already con- 
tained brazen economic, class and regional inequalities, maintained by 
terrorism. The Petition and Remonstrance he drafted on behalf of the 
wretched Carolina back-country settlers gives an alarming insight into 
conditions in parts of America on the eve of independence: many 
thousands, he said, lived as in Hungary or Germany, 'in a state of war, 
continually exposed to the incursions of hussars and pandours'. These 
men fought desperately to retain the protection, however feeble, of the 
imperial government against the local oligarchies. The truth is, inde- 
pendent America proved no more capable of giving justice to the poor 
than George m's England, less capable, indeed, of providing domestic 
tranquillity. Free Americans continued to kill each other in the lapidary 
shadows of the windy rhetoric from Philadelphia. 

Moreover, there was the little matter of slavery. Negro slaves had 
been brought to Virginia as long ago as 1619, and in the eighteenth 
century slavery had become perhaps the biggest single item in world 

* Sam Adams lost the money he had inherited in trying to run a brewery ; Patrick 
Henry twice failed as a shopkeeper. But the connection between the 'patriots' and 
smuggling should be seen in its contemporary context. Nearly everyone in England and 
America engaged in some form of smuggling. Parson Woodforde regularly bought 
smuggled spirits, though he disguised the entries in his Diary which related to it. John 
Wesley, as we know from his Journals, found that many of his most faithful West Coun- 
try supporters were smugglers. Adam Smith said that the smuggler 'would have been, in 
every respect, an excellent citizen, had not the laws of his country made that a crime 
which nature never meant to be so'. Members of the Government smuggled. When Wai- 
pole was a junior minister, he teamed up with the Secretary of the Admiralty, no less, to 
smuggle a large quantity of claret, burgundy and champagne, using an Admiralty launch. 
Walpole even smuggled when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer! 



commerce, certainly the most profitable. In 1768 alone over 100,000 
had been brought across from Africa; of these, English and American 
traders sold 53,000 in the West Indies and 6,000 in the Continental 
colonies. By the time of Independence slaves formed nearly one-fifth of 
the American population. The anomaly did not go unnoticed. If, as the 
patriots contended, nobody need be bound by laws the}^ have not con- 
sented to themselves, or through their representatives, where did the 
slaves stand? The question was asked vociferously by many New 
England idealists. They recognised that Samuel Johnson was entitled to 
ask, in Taxation no Tyranny, 'How is it we hear the loudest yelps for 
liberty among the drivers of Negroes?' Early and vigorous efforts were 
made from New England to get the transportation trade, at least, 
suppressed. No attempts were made to justify slavery on grounds of 
morality and logic. But the arguments for the economic necessity of 
slave-labour were regarded as unanswerable. In any case, if the Southern 
oligarchs were prepared to suppress agrarian revolts of the poor whites 
with ruthless terrorism, no power in America could, as yet, compel them 
to relinquish what they believed to be the chief source of their wealth.* 
So the English gave birth to a noisy, noble and flawed offspring, 
lavishing on it their traditional christening-gifts of idealism and hypo- 
crisy. The taste for violence from which the English had always wished 
to free themselves - and were at last beginning to do - passed across the 
Atlantic, where it struck deep and constitutional roots. England also 
handed on to America the birthright of the chosen race, while she her- 
self assumed a secular role, increasingly shaped by the necessities and 
moral problems of empire, the 'white man's burden*. 'God's Englishmen' 
became 'God's Americans', and the lingering consciousness of divine 
destiny, even today, still informs American attitudes, though often, 
alas, in a hideously debased and perverted form - as the CIA and the 
KGB, like God and Satan, fight Miltonic battles across five continents. 
Yet not all Englishmen were prepared to surrender the badge of the 
elect. At the end of the century, William Blake, with a mind both 
anachronistic and prophetic, reaching back to the days of the Common- 
wealth and forward to the Welfare State, resurrected the almost for- 
gotten legend of St Paul's conversion of England, in one of the noblest 
poems in our language. Most people call it 'Jerusalem', but its real title 

* For the texts of the documents cited above, including the letters of Governor 
Bernard and Anne Hulton, Captain Thomas Preston's deposition on the 'Boston Mas- 
sacre' and Woodmason's Petition and Remonstrance, see Merrill Jensen (ed.) : English 
Historical Documents; American Colonial Documents to 1776 (London, 1955). On slavery, 
American liberal opinion was reflected in the Reverend Samuel Hopkins's pamphlet, 
A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of Africans, published in 1776. That year, in April, 
importation of further slaves was ended, but even in the north chattel-slavery continued. 



is 'Milton*, and justly so, for Blake recognised in Milton the purest voice 
of the celestial patriotism which the myth enjoined on the English race. 
If Blake posed the legend diffidently, in the form of a question, if he 
lacked Milton's heroic certitudes, yet he was equally resolute and sure 
that an earthly Jerusalem could be built, and that the English would do 
it. No one who has heard Blake's lines sung at great gatherings of the 
British working class can doubt that the myth still retains its magic, or 
that Buffecoate and Berkshire Man live on. 



Splendours and Miseries of "Progress 


IN July 1791 a working-class Birmingham mob, shouting loyalist 
and Anglican slogans, took possession of the city. They smashed 
the windows of a hotel, where a meeting to further the cause of 
parliamentary reform had been held, and began a ferocious pogrom 
against Dissenters, especially against those known to entertain ad- 
vanced political and social views. One special object of their hatred was 
an elderly Calvinist minister, Dr Joseph Priestley. The doctor was a 
brilliant experimental scientist and polymath. He had, in effect, 
invented modern chemistry. Enlightened Frenchmen regarded him as 
the greatest living Englishman. He was revered in the new American 
republic and, indeed, throughout the civilised world. He was one of the 
chief architects of the dramatic process which men were already begin- 
ning to call the industrial revolution. But he was guilty of the crime of 
advocating modest changes in society and of questioning the orthodox 
tenets of the state religion. The mob failed to murder him. But they 
solemnly cut off his head in effigy. They burnt down his house and 
laboratory, destroyed the unique collection of precision instruments it 
contained, seized his papers, thought to contain treasonable matter, 
and handed them to the authorities (who kept them). They then burnt 
down two Dissenting chapels, and set about the systematic pillage of 
any house which did not carry the slogan 'Church and King for Ever'. 
Twelve of them broke into the cellars of another Dissenter, Mr Ryland, 
got incapably drunk on his wine, and were roasted alive when the 
burning roof fell in. Others killed an innocent coachman, who was 
attempting to defend his master's property. Many other people, chiefly 
humble folk, were killed or injured in the confusion. Three days later, 
the Warwickshire Yeomanry restored order, and two of the rioters were 
hanged. But the group of progressive Dissenters were scattered. 
Priestley, who had sadly watched his laboratory consumed by the flames, 
from the safety of a nearby hill, left the district, never to return. 
Three years later he emigrated to the United States, where he was 
honoured as a great philosopher, and a martyr in the cause of humanity. 
This shameful episode serves as a bleak and fitting introduction to 
the century of change and reform which made England a modern State, 
and to the processes by which the English transformed the entire 
world beyond recognition. The English are a huge force for good and 
evil: producing, with relentless energy and fertility, new ideas and 



concepts, and men of dauntless courage to thrust them on society; 
rich, also, in instincts of decency, imperious in asserting the moral law, 
remorseless enemies of injustice, avid for philanthropy, profoundly 
anxious to refashion the globe on lines of purity and reason ; but also, 
and simultaneously, blind and prejudiced, clinging desperately and 
often violently to the past, worshipping unreason in a thousand ways, 
uniquely vulnerable to the corruptions of class and snobbery and 
xenophobia, cruel by indifference and conservative by tradition. In this 
century we witness a great intestinal struggle among the English 
between the native forces of reform and reaction, light and darkness, 
a struggle which was ultimately inconclusive, because if reform em- 
erged the victor, it did so only after the expenditure of irreplaceable 
energy, and after delays which were to prove disastrous. The modern 
history of the English is a tragic record of missed opportunities, of 
chances recklessly squandered or thrown to the winds, of great men 
dying in despair, of genius and energy poured into the sands of thought- 
less indifference, of advancing reason slowed to the pace of a glacier, 
and of the slow, confident retrenchment of privilege, injustice and ob- 
scurantism. It is, to a great extent, a history and an explanation of 
everything that is wrong \\ith the world in which we live, and a lesson 
to all races. 

By the 17803, the English had acquired, through the accident of 
geography and the merit of their own efforts, a unique conjunction 
of advantages: a free, though oligarchic, political constitution, and all 
the elements of an economic revolution. Only two other countries, the 
United States and the Netherlands, had a non-authoritarian system of 
politics; and no State whatever, except England, had the physical 
means to produce an unaided and self-sustaining acceleration of econo- 
mic growth. England was the one dynamic element in a static universe. 
For half a century, foreign observers had been conscious of the con- 
nection between political freedom and economic prosperity in English 
life. In the 17205 Voltaire had noted in Letters from England: 'Commerce, 
which has enriched the citizens of England, has helped to make them 
free, and that liberty, in turn, has expanded commerce. This is the 
foundation of the greatness of the State.' England was an open society. 
There were no barriers between the classes, at least in legal terms; 
Englishmen enjoyed absolute equality before the law. Peers could claim 
judgment in their own parliament house; but the other residual 
privileges of the military tenure system had been swept away in the 
16403. In 1679 the English had acquired the right of Habeas Corpus', in 
1701 life security for judges. Juries were not accountable to the State 
for their verdicts, and accused men were innocent until their guilt was 



established to the satisfaction of courts beyond the reach of the execu- 
tive. Freedom of speech, subject to closely defined laws of treason, 
was absolute; and freedom of publication, except in the theatre, was 
qualified only by the risk of subsequent prosecution, the equivalent 
of the presumption of innocence in legal terms. Government restricted 
the sales of newspapers by stamp and paper duties, but they grew 
steadily in circulation, numbers and influence. In the half century to 
1760 some 160 provincial papers came into being, the majority critical 
of Government; in 1782 there were 18 daily papers in London alone, 
with an average readership of up to 500 a copy, for desultory efforts 
to suppress coffee-houses as centres of political discussion and disaffec- 
tion had long been abandoned. The provincial press reflected the in- 
formation and views of metropolitan journals, thus creating a national 
public opinion; and this was shaped in a vast and anarchic capital, 
twice as big and many times as rich as any other city on earth, and 
virtually subject to no authority other than self-restraint. In 1780 
London had been abandoned for a fortnight to the rule of its own mob, 
which had terrorised Catholics, foreigners and both Houses of Parlia- 
ment. There was no professional police force, and only a tiny army sub- 
ject to annual parliamentary vote. London and other chartered cities 
were autonomous, and the rest of the country was governed by unpaid 
country gentlemen, meeting as amateur magistrates four times a year. 
The civil service, even including the highly-efficient postal, customs and 
excise system, was minute, and most of those who composed it were 
immune to dismissal. England was the minimal State: no such has ever 
existed, before or since. 

Indeed, in a sense, England was a private State, in that its prime 
purpose \vas to guarantee the individual possession and enjoyment of 
property. Its rules had been established by the common lawyers 
through the ethic and mechanism of the contract. The great debates of 
1640-60 had been about the source of power: was it to be monarchy, 
property or personality? It had been decisively resolved after 1688 in 
favour of property. Membership of the House of Lords was an un- 
qualified hereditary freehold. Seats in the Commons were also, in many 
cases, freeholds. Some boroughs were the personal possessions of fam- 
ilies who nominated members generation after generation. One MP, 
protesting against the Reform Bill in 1831, claimed in anguish that his 
seat in the family borough, which the bill proposed to abolish, was a 
hereditary possession, to be handed on to his son and grandson, and that 
the bill was 'robbing him of his birthright' - thus ironically echoing the 
angry words of Edward Sexby in the Putney debates. Where the heredi- 
tary principle was inapplicable, the lifetime freehold was paramount. 



There were freehold bishops, rectors, vicars and perpetual curates 
An army commission was a freehold, to be bought and sold at 
current market prices. A judgeship was a freehold, and so were the 
overwhelming majority of posts in the public service. Even the humblest 
servants of the Crown held their jobs by secure life-tenure, which only 
outrageous conduct could invalidate. In June 1804, a king's messenger 
was found to have forged a key to the Cabinet boxes he carried, and was 
suspected of using his illicit knowledge to speculate in the Funds - a 
rewarding activity at the height of a European war. Only the discovery 
that there was no statute whatsoever under which he could be prose- 
cuted was felt to justify taking the drastic step of dismissing him. 

A society constructed on such a clear and consistent principle was 
thus highly resistant to change. That it enshrined a multitude of 
anomalies, that it was grotesquely inefficient, that the fundamental 
structure of the suffrage, laid down in the fifteenth century and since 
altered in detail in response to a variety of private pressures, bore no 
relation to the needs of a community which had changed beyond 
recognition - this seemed less important than the sense of overwhelming 
security which the absolute guarantee of existing rights provided. The 
political nation was a mere 400,000 and its members were unequal: but 
each man's title deeds were beyond challenge, and if he could get more, 
under the law, he could keep it. There were plenty of opportunities. 
England was a prosperous country, the heart of a boundless empire. A 
man could make money; he could buy himself the right to vote, a seat 
in Parliament, even the hereditary ownership of a borough. He could 
acquire an estate big enough to make his claims to a peerage, in time, 
irresistible. English society was open. The circle of power was charmed, 
but admission at any of its levels could be secured, at a price. Mr Robert 
Peel, senior, was the son of a yeoman who founded a cotton business. 
Peel expanded it, enormously. He bought an estate in Staffordshire, 
which carried with it the right to a seat in the Commons. He was useful 
to government, and raised and paid for a regiment of yeomanry; he 
was made a baronet. His son got a parliamentary seat at 21, was 
brought into government at 24; and in time became Prime Minister. 
This was an exceptional success story; but there was a multitude of 
others, known to all, which proved the same point. England was a stable 
society, and a secure one; but it was not static. The great game of suc- 
cess was rough, and difficult; but the rules were plain and universally 
understood, sanctified by tradition and the blood of political martyrs. 
Once men began to change the rules, where would the process end? To 
remove an indefensible anomaly - a parliamentary seat which had no 
electors at all - would prepare the way to removing one that had few. 



Whose vote, whose seat, would then be secure? If you applied the prin- 
ciple of logic once, must you not apply it always? A man had rights 
because he had property; or a man had rights because he was a man. 
Both systems were consistent in themselves ; they were fundamentally 
inconsistent with each other. Society was mobile; but subject that 
mobility to logical processes, and stability and security flew out of the 
window. If a political freehold was vulnerable, what other kind of free- 
hold was safe? As the anguished MP said in 1831, 'this year you take 
away my seat, next year you will take away my castle'. If a man could 
be stripped of his vote, which after all could be valued in terms of hard 
cash, when might he lose his freehold tenement? The great majority of 
the political nation refused to admit there could be a half-way house 
between the existing constitution and what Cromwell had called 'a leap 
in the dark'. 

Yet nevertheless change came, and it came in a characteristic 
English manner: in a welter of muddle and confusion, for a variety of 
reasons (most of them wrong ones) and after infinite and exasperating 
delays. To begin with, the English adopted their customary backwards 
posture, moving into the future with their eyes firmly fixed on an im- 
aginary past. The constitution, as the political nation unanimously 
agreed, was perfect; but it had become corrupted and deformed by 
wholly unwarranted, indeed illegal, innovations. It must be restored 
to its pristine state. The City of London, for instance, had somehow been 
deprived of its time-honoured privileges : Wilkes fought for ten years to 
'restore 1 them, and thereby drove a damaging wedge into the existing 
system, using popular agitation as his motive-force. One by one, ancient 
and important bastions fell to the blows of revolutionary traditions. 
General warrants were declared illegal. The Commons dropped the self- 
purging process of stripping validly elected MPs of their seats. It refused 
to give explicit authorisation to the printing of its debates, but it no 
longer prosecuted offenders. A popular press thus emerged, focused 
overwhelmingly on the activities of Parliament, and read by a multi- 
tude well beyond the confines of the political nation. And in the 17905 
the judges lost to the jury the vital right to decide on the fact of libel. 

Once again, too, the conspiracy theory served as an engine of change. 
As we have seen, its emergence in a distorted transatlantic form lost 
Britain the American colonies. But in England it served equally well to 
erode, and ultimately to destroy, the political power of the Monarchy. 
George in was not an innovator. The most he confessed to aim at was 
the removal of the worst features of corruption which disfigured a 
constitution which he (like everyone else) said was perfect. Of course 
everyone was against corruption, as they were against sin. The question 



was: corruption in whose interest? George inherited a constitution 
which was unwritten and therefore flexible; any element in it might 
push forward its claims without being seen to break the law, and so 
provoke an open crisis. But beyond a certain point, such pressures 
became objectionable, and provoked counter-pressures. Walpole had 
created a one-party State, in the Whig interest. George felt this to be an 
unwarranted distortion, and an infringement of his political rights. He 
sought to restore the balance by working towards a non-partisan State, 
in which the Crown would be freed from the illegal restrictions of party 
pressure, and govern in the general, as opposed to the factional, interest. 
It was unfortunate that his instrument was a Scotsman, Lord Bute; 
still more so that his victims felt they had lost their birthrights. They 
willingly subscribed to - indeed they actually believed - the theory 
that the King, or rather his evil advisers, were attempting to overthrow 
the verdict of 1688. Modern historians know that this is not true: but 
then they are privileged to read the King's correspondence as well as 
Lord Rockingham's, something denied to the Whigs. Historians see 
both sides of the hiU, whereas the Whigs were enveloped in the smoke of 
battle, and felt themselves threatened by imaginary horrors beyond it. 
Thus myth determined events. The great Whig families had no objection 
to corruption as the normal method of government ; it was their metier; 
they had invented it. They had no objection to making the King a 
party to the system. But that he should operate it without their parti- 
cipation was intolerable. 

The map of English politics in the eighteenth century was like a map 
of the Holy Roman Empire: a multitude of small, independent states 
plus two big ones, the Crown and the Whigs. When the big two agreed, 
there was normalcy; when they disagreed there was crisis. The threat 
from the Crown could be met in two ways: by the political reform of 
changing the suffrage and the distribution of seats; or by the financial 
reform of removing the means of Crown corruption. The first would 
destroy the Crown's parliamentary freeholds, but it would destroy those 
of the Whigs as well. So 'economic reform' was born, and flourished. It 
was originally a Whig monopoly, and a crooked one: they admitted 
among themselves that, under the guise of saving the taxpayer's money, 
they aimed to strip the Crown of its influence. But the movement gained 
its own momentum. Ministers began to see efficiency in the public ser- 
vice as something desirable in itself, especially when the country was 
at war. The revolt of the Americans, and the abject failure of the Crown 
either to conciliate or to beat them, confirmed the Whigs in their belief 
that conspiratorial forces were at work; but it also led Lord North to a 
modest filching of their clothes. 



Thus a tradition of economic reform grew up within government. It 
soon acquired an outstanding evangelist. Lord Shelburne was an 
intellectual; he knew, and corresponded with, the leading lights in 
Britain, France and America; he read Adam Smith; he took advice 
from such dangerous men as Priestley, and his Dissenting colleague Dr 
Price, and Mr Jeremy Bentham - systematic thinkers who did not share 
the prevailing English view that all change must be a restoration of 
the past, who had the temerity to advance entirely new concepts of 
government, which measured institutions and offices by their utility. 
This was a radical departure for the English, a true leap in the dark. 
But Shelburne rejoiced at the prospect. He believed in new systems. 
The Whigs, in their brief spells in office, sought to advance economic 
reform by parliamentary statute. Shelburne worked from within the 
machine. He began to disentangle the extraordinary skein of govern- 
ment departments, and their ramifying financial relationships. His 
activities set up fearsome tremors throughout the body politic, and 
brought on his head an avalanche of unpopularity. He saw himself 
as making government work ; he was, but he was also dismantling the 
\Valpoleian system of politics. Quite what he was up to the Whigs did 
not understand; but he was plainly a conspirator of sorts, 'the Jesuit 
of Berkeley Square' as they called him.* Moreover, he could not explain 
himself in the Commons, as he was a peer; indeed, he could not explain 
himself to his colleagues - for an intellectual he was curiously in- 
articulate, and his angry autobiography, or apologia, does not make 
much sense. But in falling, he handed the torch to his young Chancellor 
of the Exchequer, William Pitt. 

Now Pitt was not an intellectual. He occasionally reread the classics 
he had learnt at Eton, but otherwise there is no evidence that he 
ever opened a book which did not relate to the work of government. 
On the estate he bought in Kent he cheerfully demolished the site of 
one of the most important Iron Age forts in the country, and laughed 
derisively when antiquarians protested. He gave the poet laureateship 
to a retired hack MP. He did not cultivate men of learning except on 
business. But he had an administrative brain far more powerful than 
Shelburne's, and shared to the full the noble lord's passion for efficiency. 
Adam Smith emerged from a meeting with Pitt dazzled, and confessed 
he now understood his own theories properly. Moreover, Pitt could 
work the parliamentary, as well as the government, machine. His 'blue 

* After the all-powerful Portuguese Jesuit, Fr Malagrida. This occasioned one of Gold- 
smith's characteristic lapses in tact: 'Do you know/ he said to Shelburne, 'I never could 
conceive why they called you Malagrida, for Malagrida was a very good sort of man.' See 
John Xorris: Shelburne and Reform (London, 1963) for an analysis of Shelburne's restruc- 
turing of central government, illustrated by an illuminating diagram. 



paper' style of speaking was not to everyone's taste, but it had the 
enviable merits of clarity and gravitas. He made government, especially 
public finance, sound a mighty serious business, but he also made it 
comprehensible. For the silent knights of the shire who held the parlia- 
mentary balance, this was a new and welcome phenomenon : at last they 
understood how the Sinking Fund worked.* 

Pitt was not just clever, he was pure. There were some famous 
instances in which Pitt not merely turned do\vn time-honoured perks, 
but declined a permissible favour to the most important figure in his 
own constituency. He even allowed his own salary to get into arrears, 
a common fate among the humble, but not one which had yet befallen 
a First Lord of the Treasury. The silent knights rejoiced. After all, they 
largely stood outside the spoils system, and did not wish to perpetuate 
it if a better way of running the country could be found. Even better, 
there was an elevating contrast between the efficiency of Pitt's public 
finances and the chaos of his private affairs. As the French exile 
Chateaubriand commented admiringly, he was crible de defies. Quite how 
Pitt, whose style of life was modest, contrived to spend so much, the 
most recent and minute examination of his papers does not reveal ; but 
it seems, for instance, that on a salary averaging about 10,000, he was 
charged 7,000 and more a year for horses and stabling, but neverthe- 
less had to hire cabs and post-horses to get around. Obviously he was 
robbed by servants and tradesmen ; he had no wife to supervise them, 
indeed used his indebtedness as an excuse to repel menacing advances 
from Miss Eleanor Eden; and, as the bills and household wages were 
rarely paid, the system had a certain equity. | What most impressed 
MPs, however, was that Pitt unhesitatingly rejected a handsome offer 
from the City merchants to pay his debts to the tune of 100,000, 
without strings attached. Perhaps Pitt regarded his debts as a valuable 

* For a more jaundiced view of Pitt's oratory, see Sydney Smith's letter to Francis 
Jeffrey, 30 January 1806, commenting on Pitt's death: 'I must say he was one of the 
most luminous eloquent blunderers with which any people was ever afflicted. For 15 years 
I have found my income dwindling away under his eloquence. ... At the close of every 
brilliant display an expedition failed or a kingdom fell, and by the time that his style had 
gained the summit of perfection Europe was degraded to the lowest abyss of Misery. God 
send us a stammerer, a tongueless man.' 

* For Pitt's financial excuses for not marrying, see his letters to Miss Eden's father, 
Lord Auckland (Journal and Correspondence of William, Lord Auckland, (1862), iii, pp. 
373-4]. On Pitt's one trip to France, in 1783, Madame Necker made preliminary moves 
to marry him ofi to her daughter, later Madame de Stael; Pitt promptly returned to 
London and never crossed the Channel again. He probably had no sex-life at all. His 
bachelor status provoked tiresome English jokes (especially when he levied a tax on 
female servants), of exactly the same type made about Arthur Balfour in 1902-5 and 
Edward Heath in the 19703. The English sense of humour does not change, or improve. 
Jokes made about Mrs 'Gladys' Wilson in 1964-70 were almost identical with those made 
about Mrs 'Joan* Cromwell in the 16503. 



token of his rectitude ; this was certainly the view of many. At all events, 
by such means Pitt ruled the Commons. Where his predecessors had 
bribed, he gave peerages, garters, lord-lieutenancies: the honours 
system more or less as we know it today. The burden of work he assumed 
was enormous; for many years he had no private secretary (the post 
was a sinecure; the King himself did not employ a secretary until he 
had been on the throne over 40 years). The strain was tremendous. Pitt 
used to vomit painfully just outside the chamber of the House before 
making a speech. From the middle-iygos he took refuge in alcohol in a 
systematic and disturbing manner.* But he nevertheless contrived 
to hold supreme power, with one interval, for over 20 years, and 
in doing so he created the pattern of modern government: regular 
accountability, the systematic inspection of departmental expenditure, 
unity of receipt, Treasury control, and paramountcy of the annual 
budget. Such a system seems simple and obvious today, now that 
all States (in theory at least) practise it. But it had hitherto eluded 

Pitt's main object was to promote efficiency. In pursuing it, he 
inevitably made government more honest, and the probity of the pub- 
lic service slowly became a feature of British life and (more quickly) 
was hailed as a British tradition since time immemorial. Hence, almost 
by accident, the direct power of the monarch was finally destroyed. 
In 1809 an Act was passed prohibiting the sale of Commons seats: 
this effectively inhibited direct cash intervention by the Treasury in elec- 
tions. The rest was a matter of tidying up ; and what Pitt had done by 
stealth, his successors continued with enthusiasm. The wars against 
Napoleon had brought an afflatus of Crown appointments which main- 
tained the illusion of influence ; once over, the contraction in government 
service revealed the reality. Throughout the 18203 jobs at the disposal of 
ministers were steadily reduced. Wellington, as Prime Minister, stated 
flatly: 'No government can go on without some means of rewarding 
services. I have absolutely none/ Peel, the true heir to Pitt, welcomed 
the change. In two years, he said, he had not had a job worth 100 a 
year to dispose of, and the government was the purest in any man's 
memory; henceforth, ministers must base themselves on public opinion. 
Althorp, for the Whigs, agreed: he 'thanked God the time was passed 
when the Government . . . could be carried on by patronage'. Thus a 

* Ministerial drunkenness was aggravated by the practice of holding cabinet dinners, 
which persisted until the Reform Bill. In April 1828, Lord Ellenborough, Lord Privy 
Seal, noted in his diary: 'The Chancellor said to me: "We should have no Cabinets after 
dinner. We all drink too much wine and are not civil to each other.'" When Lord Sid- 
mouth or Lord Bathurst were present, or hosts, little business was done, as ail tended to 
be drunk. 



constitutional revolution occurred which no one planned, and which few 
noticed until it was accomplished. 

If the English could transform their system of central government 
without fuss or argument, why did they make such a mouthful of parlia- 
mentary reform? The answer is not obvious, but there are some in- 
structive pointers. One is the attitudes of society towards crime. 
Eighteenth-century crime - above all unpunished crime - was domin- 
ated by smuggling and offences against the game laws. Smuggling was a 
universal habit; it was also big business. By the 17805 it brought in 
goods worth about 3 million a year, against legal imports of about 
12 million. Few thought it morally wrong; Chafles Lamb put the 
popular view when he said smugglers 'robbed nothing but the revenue'. 
But it was a threat to the financial stability of the State. It almost 
ruined the East India Company, the world's largest trading organisation. 
And it led to a vast amount of violence and bloodshed. Lord Pembroke 
asked: 'Will Washington take America or the smugglers England 
first T As many as 700 armed men guarded the smuggling trains inland ; 
1,000 or more supervised the beach landings. Here was something which 
appealed to Pitt as a challenge, because it could be solved by administra- 
tion. Tea was the chief battlefield. Pitt took Adam Smith's advice 
and cut the tea duty, raising the window tax to balance the revenue. 
The smugglers were faced with ruin as the price of legal tea collapsed. 
They responded by trying to corner available supplies ; but Pitt inter- 
vened vigorously on the London and Continental tea-exchanges, 
financing his operations by borrowing 300,000 from the Bank of 
England. Then he turned to wine and spirit smuggling, using the same 
techniques. He employed direct legislation, in the extension of the 
Hovering and Manifest Acts, because this involved no new principle, 
and provoked no political resistance. But in the main he simply exerted 
the authority of the executive. In January 1785, the news came 
that winter gales had forced the largest single group of smugglers to 
draw their boats up high on the Deal beaches. Pitt told the Secretary 
at War to send troops to cordon off the area while the excise smashed 
in the boats. The Secretary said he had no legal authority; so Pitt 
invoked his own, as First Lord of the Treasury, and the operation 
was carried through in triumph. Within a few years, the back of the 
problem was broken, and English smuggling entered the age of the 

If the smuggling problem could be solved, why not poaching? 
Because smuggling was a classless business, whereas the game laws 
were the spectacular underpinning of the class structure. They were 
what English society was about. Medieval kings had enforced the forest 



laws with unspeakable ferocity for the same reason: they drew a decisive 
line between monarch and subject. But the forest laws had finally 
collapsed under the Commonwealth, in a wholesale carnage which 
permanently changed English ecology; private hunting parks went 
with them. The focus shifted to game, and after the Restoration 
sporting guns threatened extinction. So a statute was passed in 1671 
forbidding the killing of game except by owners of land worth ioo a 
year, or leases worth 150, the eldest sons of esquires, and the holders 
of franchises. A stockbroker, attorney, surgeon, or 'other inferior 
person', might beat while accompanying a qualified sportsman, but 
might not actually kill. The sale of game was prohibited, its unauthorised 
possession made illegal, and there was a multitude of other vexatious 
provisions, especially about the ownership of dogs.* The laws did not, 
and indeed could not, work. Their net effect was to deliver most of the 
game into the hands of poachers. Since game could legally come only 
by gift, its prestige value was high, and so, accordingly, was its black- 
market price. The middle classes and the new-rich got their game by the 
'silver gun 1 in Leadenhall Market, where it arrived in excellent condition, 
from as far as Scotland, thanks to a nation-wide network of innkeepers 
and coachmen. Higglers, or travelling poultry-dealers, bought stolen 
game-eggs, which also ended up in London, and were bought back 
by the landowners, often the victims themselves. When landowners 
tried to sell their own game, they were undercut by the far more 
efficient poaching system. What is more, they had no remedy against 
a qualified intruder, except an action for trespass after due warning 
off; so the gentry could, and did, poach against each other with im- 

The absurdities of the laws were apparent from the start. They were 
nevertheless maintained, with blind tenacity, for 150 years. Desperate 
attempts were made to strengthen them; 32 new laws were passed 
under George in alone. The notorious Ellenborough Law of 1803 im- 
posed terrible penalties, including death ; and it was reinforced by a still 
more draconian act in 1817. But poaching continued to increase. The 
trouble was that the farmers hated the laws because the squires in- 
sisted they keep up the hedges; so the farmers helped the poachers, and 
vice versa. Poachers formed professional gangs, and shooting affrays 
became common. Countrymen from dukes downwards bore the scars 
of conflict. Territorial armies were assembled on both sides. Lord 
Berkeley employed eight head-keepers, 20 under-keepers and 30 night 

* The law of 1671 also entitled gamekeepers to search the houses of the lower orders 
without warrant, thus granting to the landed class the privilege enjoyed by King's 
officers under twelfth-century forest laxvs. 



watchmen, plus extras when it was known gangs were about. But the 
worst poachers were the gamekeepers themselves, and more keepers 
usually meant less game. Technology was roped in to provide man-traps 
and spring-guns, but Parliament banned them in 1827 because they 
often killed and maimed the innocent, including the landowners them- 
selves. Sometimes entire villages, led by the constables and the game- 
keepers, formed poaching syndicates. By the 18203, one-sixth of all 
convictions were for game offences; and since only a tiny proportion of 
poachers were caught, let alone convicted, the real volume of this type 
of crime must by far have exceeded any other. The laws made life 
miserable for everyone in the countryside, but most of all for the gentry: 
they spent a fortune in protection, and yet got very little game. But 
they fought to the last ditch to maintain the system, because it was a 
legal expression of the social structure they believed in. Needless to say, 
when the worst aspects of the game laws were swept away with the debris 
of the old regime in 1831, the immediate consequence was an enormous 
increase in game ; and Continental mass-battues, beloved by the Ger- 
manic element at court, became possible.* 

The social instinct which led the English ruling class to regard even 
the birds of the air as private property expressed itself throughout the 
criminal code, whose ferocity against the person, in theory at least, was 
unique in Europe. There was a certain grim logic in this. If all rights 
and power sprang from property, as opposed to personality, then the 
State correctly assumed that stolen property worth five shillings or 
over was of more weight in the social balance than the life of the person 
who stole it - which, under a statute of William and Mary, was forfeit. 
It was no accident that the century following the 1689 settlement, which 
sanctified property as the basis of political life, saw a massive expansion 
in the number of statutory crimes carrying the death penalty, from 50 

* For the rise and fall of the game laws, see E.W. Bevill: English Country Life 1780- 
1830 (Oxford, 1962). Oddly enough, the judiciary, so savage in protecting the game- 
preservers, showed no sympathy for foxhunters. There was a universal belief that fox- 
hunting could freely take place on another man's lands, springing from a judgment of 
1656 that 'the fox is a noysom creature to the Commonwealth'. This was overthrown in 
Essex v. Capel (1809), when Lord Ellenborough's summing-up left no doubt that fox- 
hunters were common trespassers in law. Judges shot game but did not hunt foxes, 
reflecting the preferences of the more 'civilised* section of the ruling class, which regarded 
hunting, as opposed to shooting and fishing, as barbarous. But, with characteristic 
English perversity, the judgment made little difference, since farmers, who hated the 
game laws, on the whole favoured hunting. Moreover, the hunting fraternity took pains 
to conciliate the farmers: Hugo Meynell, who created modern foxhunting, would wait 
only 10 minutes at the covert-side for a duke, but 20 for a local farmer. Thus foxhunting 
entered its golden age after the law, in theory, made it impossible. For a brilliant account 
of the social pressures exerted on fanners who defied the hunt, see Anthony Trollope : 
The American Senator (London, 1871). 



to about 200*. Nearly all the new capital offences concerned property: 
appropriating stolen goods, killing or wounding cattle, destroying 
growing trees, cutting down river-banks or fences, maliciously cutting 
sedges, damaging lock-gates or sluices, stealing fish from private rivers 
and ponds, or damaging the ponds - above all, ordinary petty theft. 

Much of the medieval and renaissance apparatus of judicial savagery 
was still in being at the end of the eighteenth century: it was dismantled 
slowly but steadily, and on the whole without much argument or 
resistance. The burning of women went in 1790, the pillory in 1816 
(except for perjury), the public whipping of women in 1817, and 
private whipping three years later; gibbeting was abolished in 1834, 
though public executions had to wait until after the death of Lord 
Palmerston. But the movement to restrict capital crimes to atrocious 
offences against the person came up against certain bedrock assumptions 
which proved immensely difficult to dislodge, particularly since the 
judges considered themselves the guardians of the property-state. It 
was useless to point out that only a minority of capital sentences 
(sometimes as little as one in 13) were actually carried out, and that 
juries often deliberately undervalued stolen property to avoid the 
mandatory sentence of death. The judges were concerned to defend the 
principle. Equally, appeals to consider the tender age of those sentenced 
fell on deaf judicial ears. What if a girl aged seven and a half was in 
solitary confinement, and denied even the comfort of a doll? She was 
already an enemy of the system, and likely to grow into a more danger- 
ous one. In 1816 a boy aged ten lay under sentence of death in Newgate ; 
but the recorder who sentenced him had declared: 'It was the deter- 
mination of the Prince Regent, in consequence of the number of boys 
who have been lately detected in committing felonies, to make an 
example of the next offender of this description who should be convicted, 
in order to give an effectual check to these numerous instances of de- 
pravity.'f A substantial majority of offences, at least in London, were 

* A contributory factor to the rise in capital offences was the well-founded belief of 
the ruling class that the concept of eternal punishment was no longer an effective deter- 
rent to crime. As men ceased to believe in hell fire, the gallows arose from its ashes. See 
D.P. Walker: The Decline of Hell (London, 1964). 

f The Home office did not begin to issue criminal statistics for the whole country until 
1811, so it is difficult to compute the total of those condemned to death, or executed, 
until that date. For instance, in 1598 in Devon alone, 74 persons were condemned to 
death ; but how many were actually hanged ? Certainly, the ruthlessness of the Eliza- 
bethans in killing thieves impressed foreigners, including even Ivan the Terrible. In 
1607-16, the yearly average of executions in London and Middlesex was 78. But in the 
eighteenth century the disparity between the numbers of those sentenced, and those 
executed, widened steadily. The largest numbers of executions, of which we have 
accurate figures, took place during the post-Napoleonic reaction, 1816-22, when the 
yearly average was over 100. By 1831, death sentences had risen to i,549, but executions 



in fact committed by those under 21; not surprisingly, since the young 
constituted more than half the nation. If thieves were not hanged, 
how could they be sufficiently punished? As Robert Peel, the Home 
Secretary, wrote to Sydney Smith in 1826, it was extremely difficult 
to make prison conditions and diet more unpleasant than anything the 
criminal classes experienced outside, and so maintain what he termed a 
'salutary terror'. 

The debate continued for half a century, and was passionately argued 
on both sides, for a principle of enormous importance was at stake, 
which went to the root of social values. The achievement of such 
reformers as Bentham, Brougham, Romilly and Mackintosh seems in- 
significant if seen in terms of statutory results. Yet in the end they 
forced, and Government conceded, an ideological victory of a radical 
kind. Were the English to be treated as property-owners, mere functions 
of their possessions? Or should they be seen primarily as human beings ? 
It was not merely a battle between the trustees of the property-state 
and the humanitarians: the answers would determine the whole 
direction of future policy. If society concluded that persons were more 
sacred than goods, then the whole axis of its operations must eventu- 
ally be swung round. Not only must personality triumph over property 
as the basis of politic right, but the state must actively assist the con- 
ditions in which the person could flourish: it must protect the person, 
by public health and factory legislation, feed and clothe him if necessary, 
educate him, and give him a variety of rights to protect and advance 
his interests. There was no logical barrier between ceasing to hang a 
thief and making him the beneficiary of the Welfare State.* 

No logical barrier, indeed; but many English ones, of peculiar powers 
of resistance. Why was it, as we have seen, that a working-class mob in 
the Midlands could be raised to burn the homes of moderate reformers ? 
In the 17805, when administrative reform was getting its teeth into the 
whole body of government, there seemed excellent chances of political 
reform, too. The loss of the American colonies, which Englishmen saw 

had dropped to 52, By 1838, reform had reduced capital crime virtually to murder: no 
death sentences were passed, but only six carried out (on the other hand, two years 
earlier over 52,000 were still serving terms of transportation, varying from 7 to 14 years). 
Incidentally, the recorder was certainly wrong about the Prince Regent: he disliked 
hanging intensely, and the ability of his women to secure remissions for favoured 
offenders was one of the scandals which hastened reform, 

* Nineteenth-century judges, perceiving that the changing philosophy of the law would 
ultimately guide social progress, took an elevated view of their status. In 1848, while 
trying rioters at Liverpool Assizes. Mr Baron Alderson heard a hiss in court. He said 
angrily; 'Where is the man that hissed ? Let me see anyone who defies the law! I sit here 
atone, and with tlie whole majesty of the Kingdom of England upon me; and let me see 
the man who dares to face it I 1 



as a catastrophe springing from the weakness of the system, created a 
climate favourable to change. In the closing stages of the conflict, and 
for some time afterwards, economic distress made it possible for reform- 
ers to put insistent pressure on Parliament through the traditional 
method of mass petitions. All the young men of outstanding ability 
in the Commons favoured reform in some shape. Moreover, there was a 
substantial body of propertied opinion outside Parliament which was 
willing, indeed eager, for change. It is true that schemes varied greatly, 
and were in some respects contradictory. There were those who had 
taken the point of the American case, and wanted the seats from the 
pocket boroughs to be redistributed among the new towns ; wanted, too, 
to award the suffrage to many categories of people whose wealth, 
though substantial, was not in the form which qualified them under 
the existing system. But there were other weighty groups, especially 
the powerful association of gentry and yeomen in Yorkshire, who 
preferred a massive increase in the county seats. Such a proposal was 
in a sense reactionary, and deliberately so. Its object was to reinforce 
the essentially territorial basis of the consitution. But all schemes of 
reform were, characteristically, presented in the guise of the restoration 
of ancient perfection. There was no other way of getting the back-bench 
gentry to listen to, let alone vote for, any change whatsoever.* But 
equally, any change, even if defended on retrogressive principles, was 
welcome in that it served to shatter the mould which imprisoned 
English political development. This was Pitt's private attitude in 
1785, when his reform scheme was defeated by a mere 74 votes (248 to 
174). The division was regarded as encouraging, the augury of future 
success. It proved, in fact, the high-water mark of reform for nearly 
half a century; and in the meantime the forces of resistance were able 
to erect, with overwhelming support from the political nation, an un- 
precedented apparatus of violent repression. How this happened is 
one of the great tragedies of English history. 

Some of the blame must rest on Pitt himself, and on Charles James 
Fox. Both possessed astonishing gifts, and were given unrivalled 
opportunities to exercise them from earliest manhood: they embodied 
such virtues as the old system possessed. Both were liberal-minded, 
indeed open-minded. Both were anxious to change the world for the 
better. Their talents were complementary. In combination, they could 
have carried through a peaceful revolution in that decade of missed 

* Pitt introduced his reform motion by saying that its object was to erase defects from 
'a beautiful frame of government . . . and it would not be innovation . . . but recovery of 
constitution, to remove them'. See John Ehrman: The Younger Pitt - The Years of 
Acclaim (Cambridge, 1969). 



opportunities before 1789. In fact they became not merely rivals but 
mutually destructive enemies; their conflict nullified the political 
virtues of each, and force-fed their political vices. As public men, both 
degenerated, and public life with them. Their initial contacts were 
friendly, even warm. It is ironic that they fell out over Shelburne, the 
man nobody liked. When Fox told Pitt he would serve in no govern- 
ment of which Shelburne was the head, Pitt not only broke off negotia- 
tions but declared (and he kept his word) that he would never again 
hold a private conversation with Fox without the presence of a third 
party. He thought Fox irresponsible to allow private feelings to override 
the public interest; this was true. Fox thought Pitt a cold fish (in fact 
he was shy: The shyest man I ever met/ said his friend Wilberforce). 
But such progress as this nation has attained springs from the combined 
efforts of the irresponsible and the cold, or those who appear so. When 
Aneurin Bevan called Hugh Gaitskell a 'desiccated calculating machine', 
he echoed, unconsciously, the contempt Fox hurled at Pitt; when Gait- 
skell pointed to Sevan's lack of realism, he reasserted Pitt's principle 
that civil government imposed restraints and limitations which all 
politicians, however brilliant, must accept. 'The trouble with him,' I 
heard Gaitskell say, 'is that he never does his homework/ This was the 
voice of Pitt, for whom a blue book was bedside reading, and the nation- 
al accounts the delight of his few idle hours. Now Fox never did his home- 
work either. 'Though I like the House of Commons itself,' he told his 
friend Fitzpatrick, 'I hate the preparatory business of looking at 
accounts, drawing motions, etc.' The comparison can be taken further. 
Neither Gaitskell nor Pitt were heartless men, as their enemies supposed. 
Gaitskell was devoted to his friendships, often nourished them without 
regard to the consequences. Pitt's feelings grew with the years: his 
connection with the worthless Dundas, once based solely on official 
business (for Pitt thought the Scots lawyer a social inferior, as his letters 
to him show), eventually generated an emotional spasm, when Pitt 
failed to save his friend from parliamentary censure by the mere casting 
vote of the Speaker; as the division figures were announced, he burst 
into tears, and his anguished supporters crowded round him to hide 
the sight from the jeering Foxites. That Fox had such a heart is doubtful ; 
like Bevan, he accepted the offerings of the multitude of admirers his 
genius and charm attracted, but there was little reciprocation. George 
Sdwyn wrote of him: 'Charles, I am persuaded, would have no con- 
sideration on earth but for what was useful to his own ends. You have 
heard me say, that I thought he had no malice or rancour; I think so 
still and am sure of it. But I think that he has no feepng neither, for 
anyone but himself.' Philip Francis thought much the same: 'The essen- 



tial defect in his character, and the cause of all his failures, was that he 
had no heart/ Be that as it may, these two great men fell out ; after 
their failure to work together, the gladiatorial principle in English 
politics did the rest, and what might have been a human combination of 
unique potential became an engine of self-destruction. The other victims 
were the English people. 

The split between Pitt and Fox damaged the prospects of reform ; the 
French revolution destroyed them for a lifetime. The English hatred of 
foreigners, and especially Frenchmen, is such that no reformer can 
afford to be branded with Continental associations, however far-fetched. 
One of the great strengths of the Cromwellians was the geographical 
isolation, and the racial uniqueness, of their revolution: no foreign 
brush could tar them, indeed they could and did savage their opponents 
as the puppets of Continental intervention in English affairs. The trag- 
edy of the English reformers of the late eighteenth century is that 
they became the victims of guilt by association. The events of 1789 in 
Paris were welcomed by the English political elite, but in a very cautious 
and limited manner. What happened in France was of growing concern 
to the English nation. Three years earlier, taking advantage of what 
our ambassador in St Petersburg called 'a Phrenzy for concluding 
Treaties of Commerce with this Country which prevails throughout 
Europe', Pitt had negotiated a tariff-reduction agreement with France 
which was immensely to the advantage of English traders and manu- 
facturers. He had taken this step after much anxious thought, aware of 
the strength of anti-Continental feelings at all levels of English opinion. 
His own Foreign Secretary thought France, in particular, 'our natural 
and inveterate rival', and felt that the suspiciously generous terms of 
the treaty 'revived, if not confirmed' his fears. Pitt admitted 'the great 
difficulty is how to lay the foundations of such Connections, keeping 
clear at the same time of being too soon involved in the Quarrels of 
any Continental power*, and bearing in mind 'the necessity of avoiding, 
if possible, the entering into any engagements likely to embroil us in a 
new war'. In short, England had taken a cautious, if profitable, step 
away from isolation, and was correspondingly nervous. 

Now the English would have been happy to see their new trade links 
with France strengthened by a French adoption of English political 
practices. The Constitution of Great Britain is sufficient to pervade the 
whole world,' said Shelburne in 1782. Even those who wanted to 
improve it felt it was for export. There seems to have been a common 
assumption, in those early days, that the French Estates General would 
simply take over the famous 'balanced constitution', lock, stock and 
barrel. But the French do not like adopting foreign ideas, and if they 



were in the market for them at all in 1789, they looked to Philadelphia 
rather than Westminster. Naturally, the English did not like the role of 
spurned pedagogue: their pleasure turned swiftly to concern, then to 
fear, and finally to outright hostility. The journals of that reasonable 
and open-minded man, Arthur Young, who travelled through France 
in that fatal year, beautifully mirror the change in English opinion, 
with mounting irritations at France's inexplicable refusal to adopt 
the English model, yielding to horror at the violence and confusion, 
and ending on a note of pure xenophobia. 

The change came very fast, and by the end of 1789 sympathy with 
the French insurgents was already a political liability in England. The 
response evoked by Dr Price's sermon, in which he compared events in 
France to 1688, was generally critical: it produced, among other things, 
the furious lucubrations of Burke in his Reflections, the underlying 
burden of which was that the spread of French ideas would destroy that 
Ark of the Covenant, the English common law. It was soon almost 
useless for Fox to ask the English to 'be as ready to adopt the virtues, 
as you are steady in averting from the country the vices, of France*. 
There was a marked refusal to analyse what the French were doing, to 
differentiate between the various facets of the Revolution. Equally, 
prevailing public opinion insisted that Englishmen who offered modest 
support to the French were in fact wholeheartedly endorsing their worst 
excesses. The year 1789 initially brought a distinct radicalisation of the 
English reform movement, the entry into the arena of lower-middle- 
class and working-class elements, who formed information and corres- 
pondence societies, and got in touch with the National Convention in 
France. Such elements were small in number, and surprisingly diffident 
in their objectives. Though Tom Paine's works enjoyed an astonishingly 
wide sale, only a few thousand people actively engaged in political 
agitation. And even Paine, though more extreme than any British- 
based reformer, was a moderate by French standards. His views on 
private property and the virtue of self-interest were broadly those of 
Adam Smith. In French politics he was Girondiste, and the only member 
of the National Convention who fought openly against the execution of 
the King. The attitude of the English lower-class radicals was typified 
by the initiation-oath of the Sheffield Constitutional Society (Dec- 
ember 1791) : 

I solemnly declare myself an enemy of all conspiracies, tumults and riotous 
proceedings, or maliciously surmising any attempt that tends to overturn, or 
otherwise injure or disturb the peace of the people; or the laws of this realm; 
and that my only wish or design is, to concur in sentiment with every peace- 
able and good citizen of this nation, in giving my voice for application to be 



made to Parliament, praying for a speedy reformation, and an equal represen- 
tation in the House of Commons. 

Such moderation was wasted on the English alarmists. The cater- 
wauling of the first French refugees to arrive in England was itself 
drowned in the hysterical descants of English travellers, and residents 
on the fringes of the convulsion, most notably Gibbon. Any gesture to 
the spirit of reform, he wrote to Lord Sheffield, would be fatal in the 
light of France's terrible experiences: 

... if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamen- 
tary system, you are lost. You will be driven from one step to another ; from 
principles just in theory to consequences most pernicious in practice ; and your 
first concessions will be productive of every subsequent mischief, for which 
you will be answerable to your country and to posterity ... If this tremendous 
warning has no effect on the men of property in England; if it does not open 
every eye, and raise every arm, you will deserve your fate . . . You may be 
driven step by step from the disenfranchisement of Old Sartim to the King in 

In this atmosphere, the reform movement came to a complete halt, 
and was soon desperately on the defensive. The vicious xenophobic 
obscurantism of the Birmingham 'Church-and-King* riots spread in 
varying degrees through the country. The Commons accepted 
Wyndham's mindless dismissal of any scheme to alter the suffrage, 'One 
does not repair one's house in a hurricane', as an unanswerable truth. 
Pitt grasped at the rising hostility to France as a formidable weapon to 
brand the opposition as unpatriotic, just as Walpole had belaboured 
the Tories with the treasonable Stuart court of St Germains. Many of the 
opposition, indeed, scuttled hastily to cover, and some joined the 
Government. Burke's increasingly mad voice rose to a metaphysical 
scream as he apostrophised the virtues of the English miracle-constitu- 

. . . the well-compacted structure of our Church and State, the sanctuary, 
the holy of holies of that ancient law, defended by reverence, defended by 
power, a fortress at once and a temple . . . this aweful structure shall oversee 
and guard the subjected land . . . (Letter to a Noble Lord, 1796). 

The coming of war intensified the public pressure on anyone who could 
be associated, however remotely, with the Continental peril. In Ireland, 
the officers of a yeomanry regiment had a schoolteacher flogged because 
he was heard to speak French, and was therefore presumed to be a 
rebel. Paine was elevated to the status of a monster, and reading, 
praising, printing and distributing his works became an absolute proof of 



disaffection.* In May 1794 the Committee of Secrecy of the House of 
Commons, reporting on seditious practices, and relying almost wholly on 
the evidence of paid and unscrupulous informers, accused the harmless 
correspondence societies of planning a coup d'etat. The movement, it 
said, merely paid lip-service to parliamentary reform, and its real object 
was 'to supersede the House of Commons in its representative capacity, 
and to assume to itself all the functions and powers of a national 
legislature'. It was 'a traitorous conspiracy for the subversion of the 
established laws and Constitution, and the introduction of that system 
of anarchy and confusion which has fatally prevailed in France'. 

There followed repressive legislation of a type very similar to the code 
which emasculates opposition in contemporary South Africa. Under 
Section n of the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act, 1795, anyone 
writing or speaking words which could be construed as inciting hatred 
or contempt of the King, the Government or Constitution, could be 
transported for seven years on the second offence. The Seditious 
Meetings Act, 1795, forbade meetings of over 50 people, unless previous- 
ly licensed; if 12 or more remained after the order to disperse, they 
became liable to the death penalty; even at licensed meetings, anyone 
advocating altering 'anything by law established except by the author- 
ity of King, Lords and Commons' could be taken into custody; magis- 
trates and constables were indemnified if anyone were killed or maimed 
in the course of dispersal by force; those forcibly obstructing the arrest 
of offenders were to suffer death; and unlicensed houses where 'lec- 
tures ... on ... any supposed public grievance, or any matters relating 
to the laws, Constitution, Government or policy of these Kingdoms' 
took place were to be deemed disorderly, and their owners fined 100 
for every day the act was not complied with. So draconian was this 
measure that exemption clauses for schools and universities had to be 
inserted. It was, in effect, a crime publidy to advocate reform in any 
place except Parliament. 
These legal restrictions were reinforced by a torrent of smearing abuse 

* Oddly enough, Pitt had a high opinion of Paine. Lady Hester Stanhope, his niece and 
housekeeper, recorded: 'Mr Pitt used to say that Tom Paine was quite in the right; but 
then he would add, "What am I to do? If the country is overrun with all these men, full 
of vice and folly, I cannot exterminate them. It would be very well, to be sure, if every- 
body had sense enough to act as they ought; but, as things are, if I were to encourage 
Tom Paine's opinions, we should have a bloody revolution; and after all, matters would 
return pretty much as they were. 1 " Cromwell had taken the same view of the Levellers. 
Paine has never been given his due in England ; and, like many other famous Englishmen, 
he met posthumous misfortune, too. In 1818 Cobbett dug up his bones in America and 
brought them back to England for public exhibition. After Cobbett died, Jiis son was 
arrested for debt, and the bones passed into the hands of the receiver, where they were 
subjected to many indignities. 



from the presses and the print shops, with the savagely effective 
GUlray leading the hired pack. He neatly combined Francophobia with 
reactionary sentiment. The 'Promised Horrors of the French Invasion 1 
(1796) shows French troops marching up St James's. Pro-Government 
MPs from Whites are being hurled from the balcony or hanged on 
lamp-posts; sacks of stolen gold from the Treasury are being taken into 
the Foxite stronghold of Brookes', where a guillotine has been set up 
on the balcony; and in the foreground Fox himself is scourging Pitt. 
The same year Gillray was paid by Sir John Dalrymple, an elderly and 
eccentric Scotsman, who hoped for a peerage if he pleased the Ministry, 
to produce an even more damaging series, 'Consequences of a Successful 
French Invasion'. The French are seen taking over the Commons, 
fettering Government MPs for transportation, setting up a guillotine 
in the Lords, and murdering clergymen. In the countryside, 'a row of 
English people in Tatters, and wooden shoes, hoeing a Field of Garlic', 
are being lashed like Negro slaves by sneering French officers; and in a 
final scene in Parliament, a French lieutenant points to the Mace and 
says (in a stroke neatly combining traditional anti-Cromwellian 
sentiment with anti-French racism) : 'Here, take away this bauble, but 
if there be any gold in it, send it to my lodgings.' 

The counter-revolutionary tempest swept all before it. The 'gag* acts 
were passed by overwhelming majorities and, as even a radical like 
Francis Place admitted, with the full backing of public opinion. Whig 
lawyers were prepared to defend the victims of the acts, but they could 
do little more. In 1797 Grey bravely asserted that the French Revolu- 
tion 'in the end . . . will tend to the diffusion of liberty and rational 
knowledge all over the world', but his reform proposals, the last to be 
brought forward for many years, which adumbrated the suffrage- 
extension of 1867, mustered a mere 91 votes, the hard core of the Fox- 
ites. The French Revolution thus retarded British democracy by almost 
a century. The Whig leaders can scarcely be blamed for not trying 
harder. Some of them were already branded as unpatriotic for their 
support of American liberty; and as Lloyd George was to say in 1914, 
with his mind on the Boer War, no public man can be expected to set 
his face twice against overwhelming popular sentiment. The mass 
base of the reformist movement had vanished in the war fever. By 1798 
the London Corresponding Society was even proposing to raise a 
'loyal corps' to resist French invasion. John Thelwall, who had been 
acquitted of treason in 1794, gave up the hopeless cause ; the English, he 
said, were 'enslaved because degenerate'. Fox despaired in 1801 at the 
complacency with which the mass of the English accepted Pitt's system 
of reaction: Till I see that the public has some dislike ... to absolute 



power, I see no use in stating in the House of Commons the principles 
of liberty and justice.' There was something, indeed, to be said for the 
Whigs declining to lend their countenances to a Parliament they were 
powerless to influence. As Sydney Smith wrote to Lady Grey: 'Of all 
ingenious instruments of despotism I must commend a popular Assem- 
bly, where the majority are paid and hired, and a few bold and able 
men by their brave speeches make the people believe they are free/ 

The long wars against France were a disaster for the English, for the 
French, and indeed for the world. The English decision to assist and 
finance the European absolute monarchies in their attempts to suppress 
the popular movement in France inevitably induced in the French 
people the familiar psychosis of encirclement, diverted and unleashed 
energies of a great nation from civil construction and reform to military 
adventure, and helped to transform a promising experiment in mass 
democracy into an aggressive dictatorship. The direct cost of the wars 
to Britain was 831 million (not until the end of the nineteenth century 
was British public expenditure even to approach the level of 1810-15) 
and the indirect cost incalculable. The benefits of the astonishing rise 
in the growth rate of the British economy, which marked the first phase 
of the industrial revolution, were thus largely siphoned off into purely 
destructive channels. The exigencies of war-finance and, still more, the 
economic warfare waged by Britain against French-occupied Europe, 
combined with French efforts to retaliate, impeded the development of a 
world trading economy by many decades and, in Britain, produced 
distortions in the embryonic structure of the new industrial economy 
which were to have permanent and tragic consequences. Britain sacri- 
ficed the splendid isolation of the eighteenth century to no purpose, and 
became the paymaster in a Continental crusade without a cause. The 
subsidies she lavishly provided merely kept afloat bankrupt and tyran- 
nous states who used the cash to massacre the Poles and partition their 
country, to preserve antique social systems plainly due for demolition, 
and to delay across the Continent the emergence of societies based on 
the rights of man. Pitt had sensibly remarked, at the time of the trade 
treaty with France, To suppose that any nation could be unalterably 
the enemy of another, was weak and childish. It had neither its founda- 
tion in the experience of nations nor in the history of man/ But as the 
war continued, such weak and childish notions took possession. By 
June 1808, George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, was telling the 
Commons: 'We shall proceed upon the principle that any nation of 
Europe that starts up with a determination to oppose a Power which, 
whether professing insidious peace or declaring open war, is the common 
enemy of all nations, whatever may be the existing political relations 



of that nation with Great Britain, becomes instantly our essential ally.' 
Resistance to the 'common enemy', he continued, even the interests of 
such allies, were to have precedence over 'peculiarly British interests'. 

Thus to the flagrant disregard of the interests of the English people - 
often in direct opposition to them - Britain imprisoned herself in the 
ideological disputes of the Continent. The cautious but promising 
liberalism of the young Pitt was transformed into a self-perpetuating 
series of right-wing coalitions, geared solely to war abroad and repres- 
sion at home. The destruction of the Napoleonic regime became the 
solitary and obsessive object of policy, and in the final years of the 
struggle, control of it fell largely into the hands of two Anglo-Irish 
adventurers, Wellington and Castlereagh, drawn from the colon aris- 
tocracy, the most blindly reactionary class in the British Isles. Both 
were Continentalists by temperament, conviction and self-interest. Their 
fears of the demon democracy at home mirrored those of the European 
autocrats, and in this alliance of privilege English interests were dis- 
regarded. In January 1814, at the Treaty of Chaumont, Castlereagh 
created the concept of the great powers acting in concert across national 
frontiers. Each was to provide 150,000 troops for this purpose, and 
Britain an additional 5 million. Castlereagh rejoiced at this prodigal 
unburdening of British blood and treasure: 'What an extraordinary 
display of power! This I trust will put an end to any doubts as to the 
claim we have to an opinion on Continental matters/ It would ensure, 
after the war, the maintenance of 'the order of things 1 . But what was 
this 'order' ? A Bourbon in Paris, a Hapsburg in Vienna, a Romanov in 
St Petersburg, a Hohenzollern in Berlin. Britain gained nothing from the 
war, or from the peace; except putative membership of an international 
insurance system against revolution, of a type which the English 
Continentalist minority have always sought, fortunately in vain. The 
only real beneficiary of the war was Prussia, whom Castlereagh brought 
deliberately to the Rhine, thus planting the seeds of a future predomin- 
ance in central Europe. England is adept at creating new monsters to 
crush old ones already in decline. 

Continentalism abroad meant Continentalism at home. The end of 
wartime inflationary finance brought a collapse of wages, huge unem- 
ployment, Corn Laws to keep up the price of food and so the rents of the 
ruling class, industrial unrest for the first time on a nation-wide scale, 
repressive legislation, mass hangings and transportations, a cavalry 
massacre of the Manchester poor. This was the Ireland with which 
Castlereagh and Wellington were familiar; but it was not an England 
the English would tolerate. Huge and frightened majorities still en- 
dorsed Government policies in the Commons - its refusal to hold an 



inquiry into Peterloo was carried by 243 votes - and liberal men noted 
in despair no obvious signs of a crack in the united and brazen front the 
Tory oligarchy presented to an increasingly angry nation. There are 
our masters!', wrote Sydney Smith, '. . . it is always twenty to one 
against the people. There is nothing (if you will believe the opposition) 
so difficult as to bully a whole people; whereas, in fact, there is nothing 
so easy, as that great artist Lord Castlereagh so well knows/ 

Yet in time the great reaction sickened from within. It was geared to 
events in France: 'Everything/ wrote Sir Alexander Cockburn after- 
wards, 'was connected with the Revolution in France, which for twenty 
years was, or was made, all in all, everything/ But the noise of the 
tumbrils was fading, and fear of France a wasting political asset. The 
Government continued to maintain the scenario of conspiracy. 'They 
are absolutely pining and dying for a plot/ wrote Cobbett. Wellington, a 
man prone to hysterical delusions, feared a mutiny in the Guards. 
Castlereagh thought increasingly in terms of violence and lived on the 
fictions of informers. On the discovery of the alleged plans of Arthur 
Thistlewood and his companions to murder the Cabinet during a dinner 
at Lord Harrowby's, Castlereagh proposed that the dinner should 
proceed, that Ministers should arm themselves to the teeth, and blaze 
away when the assassins entered. The plan was rejected with raised 
eyebrows. Castlereagh was already accustomed to take ether before 
speaking in Parliament (his boss, Liverpool, did the same). His mind 
was moving remorselessly towards madness, and to fears of political 
plots he now added a manic conviction that he was being blackmailed 
as a homosexual. Some of his colleagues now sought an escape from the 
impasse of his policies. 

Continentalism abroad was the first to go. Castlereagh saw the con- 
ference system he had invented as the means to promote a united, 
and reactionary, Europe, an immobile confederation, sterilised of 
radical infection, 'a new discovery in the European Government . . . 
giving the counsels of the Great Powers the efficiency and almost the 
simplicity of a single State*. It was the old Roman dream, which the 
offshore islanders had rejected so many times before. Only Wellington, 
among his colleagues, showed any enthusiasm. Most shared the view of 
GrevHle: 'The result of his policy is this, that we are mixed up in the 
affairs of the Continent in a manner which we have never been before, 
and which entails upon us endless negotiations and enormous expense/ 
The eccentric Russian emperor, with his childish scheme for a Holy 
Alliance of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant autocrats, succeeded 
in caricaturing the scheme, to Castlereagh's fury, and raising atavistic 
English hackles, even in the Cabinet, In 1818 Cabinet pressure forced 



Castlereagh to issue a protest against the Russian proposal to intervene 
against revolution in Latin America, and in 1820 he was forbidden to 
attend the conference at Troppau, in which the monarchs claimed the 
right to impose order on any insubordinate populace. Indeed, he was 
obliged to publish a Cabinet paper specifically rejecting the doctrine, 
except in self-defence. He told the Russian ambassador that his heart 
bled at having to write it: not strictly the truth, since the stronger 
passages were almost certainly penned by his enemy, Canning. Castle- 
reagh's policies were dead two years before he slit his carotid artery with 
a penknife. Thus the English escaped from Continentalism for a hundred 
years, until they were swindled into the Great War. 

The collapse of the cross-Channel wing of the reactionary superstruct- 
ure inevitably imperilled the home base. Canning, with mounting popu- 
lar approval, reverted to the Big Englandism of Cromwell and Chatham, 
using the Navy to hold the ring while constitutionalists toppled the ortho- 
dox and opened up the obscurantist world to English goods and ideas. 
Such vigorous liberalism abroad was incompatible with the maintenance 
of a fortress-state at home. Yet the last stage of the road to reform, 
though now open, was characteristically paved with English paradoxes. 

The first of them was supplied by one of the great suppressed charac- 
ters of English history, Henry Brougham. This Westmorland squire and 
Scots-trained lawyer was by far the ablest public man of his generation. 
His extraordinary capacity to irritate even his warmest admirers has 
buried his achievements under a landslide of malicious anecdotes, half- 
truths, slanders and destructive fictions; and the historian must struggle 
through the debris to discover the salient truth that he was the greatest 
radical of them all, and the real architect of the age of reform. Whatever 
aspect of the Victorian reconstruction of society and the State we 
examine, we find that Brougham had been there before, usually by 
many decades. Before Waterloo was fought, he had adumbrated the 
age of Gladstone. Popular education, secular universities, personal 
freedoms, law reform, the mass suffrage, modern electioneering, free 
trade - in all he was a pioneer. In 1812 he defeated the Government 
over the vicious Orders in Council: not soon enough to prevent war with 
America, for the news of the revocation reached Washington too late, 
but decisively enough to make an early peace possible* It was the first 
significant Whig victory for many years. In 1820 Brougham turned the 
Whigs into a popular party. But he did so by adopting the very tradi- 
tional opposition device of exploiting a split in the royal family. He 
played the reform game according to the old English rules. 

In the eighteenth century, it was impossible for opposition to 
defeat government at a general election. Its only hope of achieving 



respectability, let alone power, was to focus itself around the heir to the 
throne. It was the fact that there was no adult royal heir during the first 
two decades of George m's reign which led the Whigs to experiment with 
the idea of an opposition based on political principles. Once the Prince oi 
Wales was old enough to engage in public life, he automatically took 
his place as patron of the opposition. But by 1810, when his father went 
irrecoverably mad, the Regent was too old, and too conservative, to 
dance the Whig minuet; his mentor, Fox, was dead, and after two years 
of futile negotiations, he finally decided to stick to his Tory ministers. It 
was the end of the line for the old Whig system. The Regent had no 
legitimate son to quarrel with. Fortunately for the Whigs, however, 
he had an estranged wife, and Brougham was her lawyer. Caroline was 
an unlovable woman, and beyond much doubt an adulteress. The Regent 
had tried for years to divorce her. But he was himself an egregious 
fornicator, and quite possibly a bigamist too. Moreover, his last attempt 
to divorce her had coincided with a brief spell of Tory opposition, and 
Percival and Eldon had taken his wife's part - had, indeed, concocted 
her statement of defence which, on returning to power, they sup- 
pressed by legal injunction. So no one had clean hands. When George 
at last became King, in 1820, he flatly refused to allow Caroline to be 
crowned Queen alongside him; moreover, against the advice of his 
Cabinet and his bishops, he instructed her name to be removed from 
the Anglican liturgy, to avoid, as he claimed, the blasphemy of asking 
the populace to pray for her. 

This was too much even for the English, inured as they were to the 
traditions of State hypocrisy. Anglicans in private, Dissenters and 
Catholics in public, prayed for the wretched woman with an enthusiasm 
and energy which had little to do with religion. Worse still for the Tory 
ministers, they were now driven by logic and a hysterical monarch to ask 
the House of Lords to declare that Caroline had committed adultery 
with her servant Bergami, and that her marriage was null and void. 
For Brougham, the greatest lawyer and orator of the day, the opportun- 
ity was beyond price: a monumental state trial, fought in a blaze of 
publicity, with opinion overwhelmingly behind him, and ministers in 
complete disarray. He was privately convinced of Caroline's guilt. 
But, quite properly, he insisted that the case against her should be 
proved, knowing this was impossible. The English, as the example of 
Catherine of Aragon showed, always rally to an injured Queen, even 
when her cause runs against other instincts; and to this powerful 
emotional force Brougham added the formidable engine of anti-foreign 
sentiment. Without exception, the key government witnesses against her 
were Italians, presumed to be corrupt liars, and indeed known to have 



been bribed. Brougham's cross-examination of Theodore Majocchi, the 
most important of them, was a black masterpiece of forensic terrorism. 
Completely demoralised, the trembling creature found himself saying 
'JVow mi ricordo no less than 87 times, often to questions to which his 
previous evidence-in-chief had provided emphatic and confident 
answers. The phrase was taken up by a delighted nation, and it could 
still raise a laugh in London pubs and drawing-rooms 50 years later. 
Brougham's principal speech for the defence was declared the finest 
ever delivered, by men who had heard Fox, Pitt, Sheridan and Burke in 
their prime. With sublime and magisterial humbug, he concluded : 'The 
Church and the King have willed that the Queen should be deprived 
of its solemn service. She has instead of that solemnity the heart-felt 
prayers of the people/ Brougham thus aligned the populace against the 
ruling establishment. But if the case embodied politics it also trans- 
cended them. Here was a simple issue of right and wrong, which 
ordinary people could decide for themselves; and in opting for the Queen 
(and therefore for opposition), they could not be accused of disloyalty, 
or lack of patriotism, of seeking the overthrow of the law and the con- 
stitution. You could not turn out the yeomanry to scatter crowds 
cheering for the Queen. The repressive apparatus of government seemed 
suddenly irrelevant. Public opinion and the mob coalesced. At Eton, 
Caroline townsmen fought a pitched battle with Georgian schoolboys. 
Greville recorded: 'Since I have been in the world I never remember 
any question which so exclusively occupied everybody's attention, 
and so completely absorbed men's thoughts and engrossed conversa- 
tion/ For the first time the victor of Waterloo was hissed and nearly 
dragged from his horse. A Tory MP, Edward Wilbraham, wrote 
nervously to Lord Colchester: 'Radicalism has taken the shape of affec- 
tion for the Queen and deserted its old form/ Ministers, dismayed by 
sliding majorities, dropped the bill in confusion. Brougham became the 
most popular man in the kingdom. His chambers were crowded with 
gold boxes containing the freedom of towns and cities, and many 
scores of pubs were renamed the Brougham's Head. By teaching the 
Whigs a lesson in mass-politics, and by aligning popular unrest behind 
a constitutional cause, Brougham diverted the ruling class and the 
people from a collision course, and opened the way to peaceful reform. 
The trial cut the last links between the opposition and royalty, but it 
forged a more enduring one with the nation. Thus a ludicrous incident 
became a political watershed, and a worthless woman made a valuable 
contribution to English history. 

The lesson was not lost among the more intelligent Tories, either. 
They became increasingly aware that the political power of the Crown 



was vanishing, and that to survive they must come to terms with public 
opinion. During the 18205, the Tory monolith split down the middle. 
The liberal elements - Canning, Goderich, Palrnerston, Grant, Huskisson 
- moved steadily towards the Whig camp, leaving Wellington and Peel 
exposed on a dwindling rump of reaction.* All the same, a final paradox 
was required to end the half-century of paralysis. Pitt had promised the 
Irish in 1800 to remove Catholic disabilities as the price of union with 
England; and the King had forced him to renege. This was the issue, 
above all, which separated the ultra Tories from the Liberals, with Peel 
and the Duke as the sacramental custodians of the Protestant cause. 
In 1829, dismayed by Daniel O'Connor's famous victory for Clare 
County - a seat he could not legally occupy - and terrified by the 
prospect of a mass uprising of the Irish (25,000 out of 30,000 troops 
in the United Kingdom were deployed in or against Ireland), the ultra 
ministers ratted, and the government levies carried Emancipation 
through Parliament. It was a betrayal of the Protestant back-benchers 
without any mitigating circumstances whatsoever, and resented 
accordingly. The back-benchers glimpsed a searing light of revelation: 
the old, corrupt system, buttressed by their silent votes for decades, 
had made the treachery possible: it was the Members for pocket 
boroughs, and the peers who owned them, who carried the Bill, and 
formed the rank and file of the Duke's turncoat army. Moreover, with 
legal restrictions removed, there was nothing now to prevent rich 
papists from buying their way into Parliament and overthrowing 
the entire Anglican settlement. At last they saw a case for reform! Thus 
by a supreme irony, extremists of both wings found a common cause, 
and a motion for reform was jointly moved by the ultra-Tory Marquess 
of Blandford and O'Connor himself. The death of the wretched George 
iv precipitated a general election; Brougham campaigned in Yorkshire, 
addressing meetings of 20,000, even 30,000, in a foretaste of the Mid- 
lothian campaigns half a century later; in July 1830 the French threw 
out the Bourbons without bloodshed, so that for once cross-Channel 

* Brougham had argued for many years that the reformers could achieve power only 
by splitting the Tories. Thanks to him, at the election of 1826, many Whigs supported 
liberal Tories, and vice versa. He fought consistently against the power of the great 
landed families by bringing into play the opinion of rank-and-file MPs, especially during 
the negotiations for the forming of Canning's government in 1827; it was almost certainly 
he who wrote a leader in The Times, 16 April 1827, pointing out that the government of 
the country was vested, by law, not in the great families but in King, Lords and Com- 
mons. Brougham finally sacrificed his political career in 1830 by accepting the Chancellor- 
ship; he was persuaded that, if he refused, Grey would resign the task of forming a 
government, and reform would be delayed by another 25 years. But if Brougham had 
remained in the Commons, he must surely have become Prime Minister, and advanced 
the era of Gladstonian reform by a generation. See Chester New : Life of Henry Brougham 
to 1830 (Oxford, 1961). 



politics worked against English reaction; and in November the angry 
ultras helped to turn the Duke out. Thus the last piece of the jigsaw 
fell into its place: now that the Whigs had their hands on the levers of 
power, reform in some shape was inevitable. As Macaulay put it: 'I 
know of only two ways in which societies can be governed - by public 
opinion or by the sword/ 

The Great Reform Bill, like Magna Carta, was drafted in haste and 
carried in confusion. Largely by accident, it turned out to be a miracle 
of English social engineering, a famous non-victory for the people. It 
doubled the electorate, redistributed a third of the seats, and rational- 
ised the franchise. It was thus radical enough to persuade the Tories to 
fight it almost to the last ditch, and thereby convince the innocent 
populace that they were getting something significant. In fact it was 
timid compared to the bill its architect, Lord Grey, had sponsored 
nearly 40 years earlier. It skilfully postponed the advent of a mass- 
franchise for another half-century. While admitting a significant 
section of the middle class to the fortress of the property state, and so 
enormously strengthening the garrison, it slammed the door on the 
workers: none of them got the vote, and those who already possessed it 
were disenfranchised. By making the minimum concessions to avert 
revolution, it effectively denied the use of the sword both to the 
forces of reaction and those of democracy. Granted the instinctive 
conservatism of the English people, and the long experience of the 
gentry in exploiting it, the latter found no difficulty in making nonsense 
of the bill's provisions. They invaded the new boroughs just as their 
predecessors had taken over the old ones in the fifteenth century. In 
1867, a detailed analysis of the background and connections of MPs 
showed that the changes in social composition, over 35 years, had 
been almost imperceptible: the 'aristocratic element* held 326 seats, 
more than half, and they were almost equally distributed between the 
two great parties. Indeed, the beneficiaries of the old system were even 
more securely in control of the new, because its indefensible anomalies 
had been removed, and it was far less vulnerable to frontal attack. Thus 
the possessing classes learned a valuable lesson in consolidation through 
reform, and the modern pattern of British politics took shape. Moreover, 
the blood transfusion, which set the constitution on its feet again, 
permitted, as we shall see, the systematic refurbishing of a variety of 
institutions, whose net effect was enormously to strengthen the re- 
sources of the privileged classes. Over the Reform Bill, reaction lost 
the battle, but conservatism won the war. 



The fact that the English avoided a political breakdown in the early 
nineteenth century is all the more remarkable in that they were under- 
going social and economic changes of unparalleled scope and severity. 
The English industrial revolution of 1780-1820 is the great watershed 
in the history of mankind. It liberated the body, as the Reformation 
had liberated the mind. Indeed the two were intimately connected. It 
was in the light of the escape from Rome, and the break-up of a static 
intellectual system, that Bacon saw the Fall reversed and forecast 
man's conquest of a hostile and grudging environment. He regarded the 
prospect as stupendous and imminent, and so it might have been, for 
he wrote on the eve of great events. The collapse of the English republic 
undoubtedly decelerated the proces's, but it was beyond anyone's 
power to halt it. Indeed, we can trace from the middle of the sixteenth 
century a majestic chain of events, each projecting the next, which made 
the outcome of the modern world inevitable. 

Geography had always placed the English significantly apart from 
the Continental conflux of societies whose very proximity and inter- 
action secured their conservative elements in possession. The Channel 
gave us a certain eclectic freedom in the reception of Continental ideas : 
we could take by choice ; we could not be made to receive by compulsion. 
The act of separation might have occurred much earlier, and the film of 
history speeded up in consequence. At all events, the change was 
decisive when it came. The religious revolution made possible a revolu- 
tion in education, not just in scope but in quality. The new education 
bred the first scientific revolution, and it was the impact of scientific 
rationalism on society which brought the political and constitutional 
revolution of the 16405. From this convulsion we can date the agri- 
cultural revolution, which completed the break with the subsistence 
economy, and made possible the commercial and financial revolution 
of the late seventeenth century. The flow of cheap money thus secured, 
the stability of credit, the rapid development of world trade and, not 
least, the emergence of a sophisticated consumer market at home, 
combined, in the 17805, to produce the revolutionary combination of 
capital and technology in the mass-production of goods by powered 
machines. This transformation, paralleled by the administrative 
revolution in the central organs of government, in turn projected the 
social revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. English 
religion died in the process : the Reformation God did not live to see His 
handiwork. Nevertheless, He was the prime mover in it all. The Gospel 
according to Karl Marx, or to Mao Tse-tung, or to Keynes, all spring 
by direct intellectual descent from the Protestant Bible. And behind it 
all lies the enigmatic, mocking smile of Pelagius. 



By the early 17805, when all the economic indices took a sudden, and 
sharply upwards, turn, England's situation was unique. Sojcne of the 
elements required for an economic transformation were present in 
other parts of the world, but only England possessed them all in 
combination. The 'miracle 1 had been brewing for 150 years; or, to vary 
the metaphor, a number of conventional factors of economic growth had 
been drawing together, and in the late eighteenth century the resultant 
mass became 'critical', and the explosion took place. One of the 
problems which Roman, medieval and Renaissance societies had 
failed to solve was how to make long-term investment in agriculture 
both safe and rewarding. It was a legal, rather than an economic, 
problem, for capital could not be raised or usefully employed unless the 
law underwrote mortgages in the interests of both parties and guaran- 
teed the integrity of estates on inheritance. The triumph of the com- 
mon lawyers in the 16403 provided a two-fold solution. The law of strict 
settlement ensured that entailed estates passed intact from generation 
to generation; while equity of redemption made the mortgage on the 
one hand a secure form of investment and regular income, and on the 
other a respectable way of raising capital for improvement. Men need 
no longer bury their money in holes in the ground; nor need landowners 
sell land to raise working cash. These simple, but original and highly 
effective devices, led to a rapid and sustained rise both in agricultural 
production and in productivity. The scientific knowledge already 
existed, for the most part : from the 16403 books and pamphlets ensured 
its wide diffusion, and once the cash began to flow it could be widely 
applied and improved by experiment. By 1670 the revolution of the land 
was complete in all essentials, and during the next century farmers 
and landowners systematically exploited its techniques.* A great deal 
more land came into cultivation: fenland drainage schemes alone 
added 10 per cent to the total farming area. The enclosure of the 
commons, pushed forward by a gentry-dominated Parliament, com- 
pleted the reorganisation of the structure of English agriculture - 
formed by the three tiers of landowner, tenant farmer, and landless 
labourer - which began in the decades following the Black Death. 
Enclosure involved great cruelty and injustice (as it did, on a much 
more ferocious scale, in the nineteenth-century Scottish highlands and 

* The elements included the floating of water-meadows, stock-breeding, techniques of 
drainage, introduction of fallow crops, like turnips and clover-grass, and the use of 
natural, and even of artificial, fertilisers. Most of the enclosures had actually taken place 
by the end of the seventeenth century. See E. Kerridge: The Agricultural Revolution 
(London, 1967). Production for the market was assisted by the fact that, by the absence 
of internal tolls, England was already the largest free-trade area in Europe, an area 
further expanded by the union with Scotland. 



Ireland), for it deprived great masses of the rural poor of marginal 
sources of food and income, and left them almost wholly dependent on 
wages. On the other hand, in many ways it merely brought rural poverty, 
which had always existed, into the open; forced society, indeed, to use 
the poor law to underwrite rural incomes, an obligation already acknow- 
ledged by 1730, and made almost universal in the south-east and mid- 
lands by the adoption of the Speenhamland system in the 17803. 

Moreover, the agricultural revolution undoubtedly prevented more 
misery than it caused, simply by allowing more food to be produced and 
marketed. Even by the end of the seventeenth century, England was 
exporting grain worth 250,000 every year on average. These foreign 
earnings were not particularly significant. More important was the fact 
that England achieved a surplus while managing to feed a rapidly 
increasing population. What exactly caused the population to rise is 
not clear: it seems to have been a general phenomenon, at any rate in 
the Eurasian land-mass. It may have been due to the exceptionally fine 
weather which marked the half-century 1700-50. In England a con- 
tributory factor was certainly the virtual disappearance of plague 
before the end of the seventeenth century. But a rise in living-standards, 
especially of food-consumption, cut death rates in all age-groups, and 
markedly among infants ; and it seems, too, to have produced a margin- 
ally higher birth-rate. At all events, English population, which had 
been 3 million in the early sixteenth century rose to 4 million in 1600, 
and to an estimated 5-5 million in 1650. By 1750 it had reached and 
passed the 6 million mark, and 30 years later it was 7-5 million.* Such 
upward movements had occurred before in all parts of the world, 
including England; and the inability of agriculture to keep pace had 
produced the 'natural' adjustments of famine, plague and war. In the 
eighteenth century they were not required: the theories of Malthus, 
though generally accepted, were not so much false as obsolete. 

English agriculture not merely fed the new masses, it fed them better. 
There were periodic famines in Continental Europe and in Ireland: 
indeed in Ireland an equally rapid increase of population was fed only 
by the universal adoption of an inferior, and desperately vulnerable, 
potato diet. But in England there was a steady improvement. Almost 
everywhere, horses, which consumed more but were four times more 
productive, replaced oxen as the motive-power of the fields. Even the 
poorest labourers switched to white bread, and there was a huge 
increase in meat consumption, made possible by systematic stock- 

* These population estimates are still a matter of controversy. For a recent critical 
analysis, and a useful table of rival calculations, see L. A. Clarkson: The Pre-Industnal 
Economy in England, 1500-1750 (London 1971), pp. 25-41. 



breeding. Bakewell proudly, and accurately, asserted that he bred his 
sheep for the masses as well as the classes. Though England ceased to 
be able to export food by the 17808, even in 1830 some 90 per cent of 
her food was still home-grown. It was an astonishing achievement on 
the part of English agriculture: without it there could have been no 
possibility of concentrating such numbers in the new industrial units. 
In the twentieth century, industrialisation has invariably been accom- 
panied by an absolute decline in the agricultural sector. In eighteenth- 
century England, the two expanded simultaneously, the latter with a 
vastly reduced work-force. The rise in agricultural productivity must 
have been phenomenal, and in the high-yield areas, as Cobbett's 
Rural Rides makes plain, it was achieved at great human cost. But the 
alternative was far more terrible: it could only have been widespread 
starvation. In fact nobody starved, and most ate better than ever before 
in history.* English agriculture did not, as historians once believed, 
finance the industrial revolution: that, we shall see, was not necessary. 
But it did something more important: it enabled the new industrial 
proletariat to stay alive, for if home supplies had failed, there was no 
alternative source. 

Capital for investment was no problem. The English had always been 
able to save, and had always done so. They had had a strong currency 
since the eighth century; and, despite the occasional follies of their 
rulers, it remained the most stable in the world until recent times. The 
difficulty lay in persuading the English to fork out their cash - that is, 
to guarantee security in return for a much lower yield. Here again, 
the Commonwealth years were decisive. Absolute monarchy is the 
enemy of safe investment. The Stuarts were opposed to a central bank 
in principle, as a rival power-structure, and in any case they could al- 
ways use their executive power to renege on their debts. The result was 
they had to pay between 12 and 20 per cent for their money, and 
general rates were over 10 per cent as long as the Stuarts were around. 
Even so, money stayed underground. The Commonwealth showed that 
a broadly-based government, committed to the sanctity of private 
property, and with an open ear to the mercantile interest, could raise 
money at modest rates even while fighting a civil war. After the Stuarts 
were finally expelled, the lesson was rammed home. In 1694 the Bank 
of England took over the role of the City as lender to the Government 
in its corporate capacity; it could mobilise monetary resources from 
all over the country, issue paper, and lend to Government at 8 per cent 

* In 1688 Gregory King estimated average English incomes at between S and 9 a 
year; the average for labourers, cottagers and paupers was just over ^3. By 1780, on the 
eve of the industrial revolution, incomes had doubled. 



with a parliamentary guarantee. It made lending to the Government 
safe, just as the strict settlement and equity of mortgage made lending 
to landowners safe. Thus, in a curious way, the Great Revolution 
saved both the property-state and the landed interest, just as Roosevelt 
was to save the capitalist system in the teeth of its main beneficiaries. 
The strength and possibilities of the new system soon became apparent. 
New techniques and international clearance of debt ended the primitive 
old business of shipping thousands of sacks of coins from country to 
country. A stock exchange developed to mobilise and distribute in- 
ternal capital; and early in the eighteenth century marine insurance 
drastically reduced the speculative element in overseas trade.* The 
system survived the new and alarming experience of the South Sea 
Bubble: the crisis was not solved by Walpole, it cured itself; and the 
lesson was learnt that a country could not operate two central banks, 
competing with each other and backed by rival political factions. 
By 1727 the rate on government stock was reduced to 4 per cent, and in 
1757 to 3 per cent. Thus by the mid-eighteenth century there was ample 
capital available for canals, roads and other improvements to the in- 

Technology was no problem either. A surprising amount of industrial 
machinery was in use in England long before the age of steam. More 
inventions were knocking around, waiting for exploitation. Scattered 
across the country were pockets of industry, some organised in com- 
paratively large units. Even in 1700, silk manufactories, for instance, 
employed up to 700 hands. The huge size of London made inevitable 
the creation of supply industries geared to mass-production and 
demanding the increasing use of machinery. London consumed vast 
and growing quantities of coal, chiefly from the Newcastle fields: the 
business of getting it up and shipping it was shaping the modern New- 
castle even in the mid-seventeenth century. There was a keelman's 
strike for higher wages there in 1654; by 1699 the Y had a strike-fund; 
and when they struck again in 1719 it took a regiment of regulars and a 
man-o'-war to keep the peace. By the mid-eighteenth century total coal 
production was already in millions of tons, and steam power was 
increasingly used to mine it. The central problem in industrialisation 

* Cheques for internal use came into circulation about 1675 ; paper settlement of inter- 
national transactions followed after 1688. See J. Spelling: The International Payments 
Mechanism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries', Economic History Review, 2, 
xiv. The process was assisted by the rapid development of government statistics, follow- 
ing the appointment of Charles Davenant, the economist, as Inspector-General of Imports 
and Exports; his office supplied information to the Treasury and the newly formed 
Board of Trade. Accurate statistics made various forms of cheap insurance possible ; and 
it is significant that, about this time, the English ceased to use the abacus. For further 
information see P.G.M. Dickson : The Financial Revolution in England (1967). 


has always been - is still today - an adequate supply of men skilled in 
the intermediate technologies of metal- work. By 1750-60 a whole range 
of industrial developments in England had created this supply, and 
there were no institutionalised and class barriers between metal- 
workers and engineers. It was thus comparatively simple to move into 
the advanced technology of the factories. Machines were improvised; 
one development bred another. Most of the pieces of the jigsaw lay 
around : it was a matter of fitting them together, and then inventing the 
missing bits. The critical moments were not delayed by inadequate 
technology, but by the absence of demand, or rather by the failure to 
recognise it existed. 

The increased circulation of money in the seventeenth century, pro- 
moted by the high-taxation policies of the Commonwealth, created a 
new attitude to consumption. Shops charging fixed prices, even in 
villages, slowly replaced fairs. The end of haggling marked the dawn of 
the modern world in England: this was what was meant by the 'nation 
of shopkeepers', a phrase otherwise meaningless. Home demand did 
not create the factory revolution, but it prepared the way. It made 
men think in millions instead of thousands. The great leap forward in 
the 17805, however, was essentially what we would call an export-led 
boom. English mercantilism, born in the Commonwealth, carried 
forward by Blake's ships, was adapted to the creation of closed foreign 
markets for English goods. The Navy enforced strict protection for 
English trade until English industry was strong enough to risk free 
trade, and then preached it to the world as an article of moral faith. 
By the 17003 the English were already maintaining a two-power 
naval standard.* The overseas markets were of vital importance. There 
were already 4 million Americans in the 17805, worth, in consuming 
power, over 40 million Europeans. And the English were opening up 
a market of 100 million Indians by direct annexation, enforced treaty, 
and the suppression of native crafts. This was the background to the 
cotton explosion, which dominated the first phase of the industrial 
revolution. More than any other product, it linked universal demand 
with new methods of mass-production. Cotton factories grew up in the 

* After the battle of La Hogue in 1692, the Navy could always deny French colonies 
continuous help from Europe. England was already the leading naval power. During the 
War of the Spanish Succession she adopted the principle that the Royal Navy should 
equal or surpass the naval strength of any two powers combined. In 1756, for instance, 
Britain had 130 ships of the line; France and Spain, despite recent big increases, only 63 
and 46. This standard was maintained until 1912, when the object of naval policy was 
limited to maintaining decisive superiority over the German Navy in the North Sea. In 
1918 Britain was still the world's greatest naval power; but in 1922 she accepted parity 
with the United States, and a 5 to 3 standard with Japan, at the Washington naval 



hinterland of the great ocean ports, eventually concentrating in the 
Lancashire catchment area of Liverpool, the greatest of them all. In 
the first half of the century, industries supplying mainly home demand 
increased output by 7 per cent; export industries by 76 per cent; in 
the years 1750-70 the figures were 7 and 80 per cent. After that point, 
the revolution took off, and export figures climbed astronomically, 
with cotton supplying the bulk. The major inventions came in the 17805, 
as soon as the demand justified them; and the factories were built 
around them. Their size and concentration, in Manchester and elsewhere, 
astonished contemporaries. People knew immediately that something 
extraordinary and irreversible was happening, and that the world 
could never be the same again. Revolutions in religion and politics, in 
science and education, bring devastating changes in men's lives; but 
they do not alter the physical appearance of things. The factory revolu- 
tion did: it provided ocular evidence of a monster growth, new shapes, 
colours, smells; it changed the very air and the rivers and the fields, 
abolishing the seasons and transforming the daily pattern of existence. 
It brought an entirely novel psychology of growth and motion, and a 
new relationship between man and nature. 

Yet if the English recognised they had given birth to a new and 
sensational event, this does not mean they understood their offspring, 
or had the least idea of how to bring it up. Indeed, they botched the 
accouchement ; the creature was malformed and ailing from the start, 
and nothing in its upbringing and education was calculated to ensure 
purposeful and healthy growth. This is not surprising. The English 
are a pragmatic people. They work through practical expedients rather 
than majestic conceptions. The industrial revolution was the product of 
a thousand empirical solutions to separately considered problems, 
devised over centuries, which by a process of accumulation suddenly 
produced a qualitative change in the way economic society operated. 
It was, in fact, an unplanned muddle, and it remained one. If the 
political events of the seventeenth century had taken a different shape, 
if the Commonwealth had survived, if the English had chosen to direct 
their social development, rather than to buy stability at the cost 
of surrendering to their blind, traditional instincts of evolution, 
the industrial age would have come sooner, and would have been 
subjected to the disciplines of foresight, and a goal. The English 
in the mid-seventeenth century had the courage and the optim- 
ism to juggle consciously with dramatic ideas about their destiny. 
They felt - they knew - they were radically different. God had great 
plans for them. They still possessed the spiritual audacity to seize on a 
new phenomenon like industrialism, to identify its divine purpose, and 



to intellectualise the part it was designed to play in their creation of 
God's kingdom on earth. Industry came to England not too soon, but 
too late. Even by 1700, property had already replaced moral purpose as 
the framework of English society. By 1800 God was restricted to the 
churches and the chapels. The rest of the patrimony was parcelled 
out among an individualistic, secular society, operated by secondary 
causes, according to rules which, if superficially rational, depended in 
fact on anarchic change. It was no longer possible to fit the march of 
events into a recognisable scheme, and to advance it accordingly. 
Indeed, those few who still tried to think in such terms were inclined 
to interpret the new phenomenon as inimical, even hostile, to God's 
will. Milton would have hailed the factories as divinely inspired; to 
Blake they were the 'dark, Satanic mills'. 

The truth is, the industrial revolution caught the English mid-way 
between faith and reason. The laws of God were hopelessly eroded; no 
one even thought of applying them to the practical business of running 
industrial society; at the most they could be brought to bear on miti- 
gating its effects. On the other hand, the idea that man was in sole and 
unrestricted charge of his destiny, and must himself write the rules in 
the light of reason and experience, had not yet been born. In this half- 
way house it was assumed, instead, that the rules sprang themselves 
from the operative processes of nature, were self-formulating and self- 
enforcing. The only sin was to attempt to interfere with them. The only 
duty was to discover what they were. The concept was half-scientific, 
in a sense Newtonian. But it was also half-obscurantist; it failed to 
differentiate between natural forces which were irresistible, and social 
forces which could be controlled or reversed. After all, the belief that 
the end of intellectual effort was purely interpretative, that the body of 
knowledge was complete and finite, and had merely to be extracted 
from the dross of error, was the root cause of the medieval paralysis. It 
was the essence of scholasticism. 

Here we come to the tragedy of the industrial age, a tragedy which is 
still with us. The economists took over the role of the schoolmen. 
They forgot, if they had even grasped, Bacon's assertion that the object 
of analysing nature was to learn how to control it. They confined them- 
selves, as had the schoolmen, with dogmatic theology, to elucidating 
the law, and terrifying the secular power into allowing it to enforce 
itself. The industrial revolution was born in pragmatism; it grew to 
twisted maturity in an intellectual climate of blind theory, which for- 
bade in any circumstances the use of physic or the surgeon's knife. A 
few men who were close to the actual physical events and tried to 
intellectualise, as it were, from the factory floor, came to radically 



different conclusions. As early as 1815, Robert Owen, in his Observations 

on the Effect of the Manufacturing System, forecast that the revolution 

'will produce the most lamentable and permanent evils, unless its 

tendency is counteracted by legislative interference and direction*. He 

could not have put the modern, rationalist case more clearly; but his 

voice was wholly ignored. The schoolmen-economists had the monopoly 

of the public ear. They were not men of action. Some, like Malthus, 

were indeed clergymen, or clerical academics. Others were financial 

manipulators, like the stockbroker Ricardo. They knew nothing of the 

new factories, except as observers. They tried to solve the problems of 

the world in the quiet of their studies, inside their own heads. Their 

systems were as majestic, as logical, as complete and perfect as the great 

summae of St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, and as irrelevant; 

and, like the schoolmen, though they differed in detail, and argued 

acrimoniously among themselves, they shared common premises, 

and reached a common consensus. For the laws of the Canon they 

substituted their own 'iron' laws of wages, and theories of value. They 

produced a new vocabulary of mumbo- jumbo. It was all hard-headed, 

scientific, relentless, immensely appealing to an intellectual dlite brought 

up in the atmosphere of the minimum state. The iron laws must be 

allowed to operate: society would be crushed if it sought to impede 

their remorseless progress. It is an astonishing fact that all the ablest 

elements in English society, the trend-setters in opinion, were wholly 

taken in by this monstrous doctrine of unreason. Those who objected 

were successfully denounced as obscurantists, and the enemies of social 

progress. They could no longer be burned as heretical subverters of 

the new orthodoxy, but they were successfully and progressively 

excluded from the control of events. 

Such scientific inquiry as did take place was concerned exclusively 
with trade and finance, with credit and the money supply, with paper 
currency and the bullion problem. These matters were closely examined 
by parliamentary committees, and hotly debated in Parliament. In a 
curious way, the factory revolution had grown up outside the financial 
system: for the most part it was locally or self-financed. It produced 
dramatic consequences for the trading and financial community, which 
was closely linked to Parliament and administration; and it was these 
consequences which were analysed - the basic industrial cause was 
ignored. No one in authority visited the new factories. They agreed, 
with reluctance, to have them inspected by the State: but for moral 
purposes, to prevent the abuse of persons, not to discover how they 
worked, or how they could be made to work better. Throughout the 
industrial revolution, the English saw themselves as a trading, not as an 



industrial community; indeed they still do. Peel, who had more influence 
than any other man on the public response to economic events for nearly 
40 years, took little interest in industrial matters as such, though his 
father had been the greatest of the early cotton pioneers. He was the 
skilled chairman of the bullion committee, and later the architect of 
unrestricted free trade. But he visited no factories, did not seek the com- 
pany of engineers and inventors. He turned his back on the machine 
and built up a remarkable art collection from its profits. 

Thus the English botched the greatest opportunity in their history. 
The real creators of the revolution, the mechanics, the inventors, the 
chemists, often died in obscurity or poverty, even, in the case of Priest- 
ley, in exile. The big fortunes were made by the second generation of 
industrialists, men who organised rather than invented; or those, like 
Arkwright, who ruthlessly appropriated and forged together other men's 
ideas. The creators, indeed, got themselves a bad name among the 
right-thinking. The head of the house of Rothschild said there were 
three ways to lose your money: through women, gambling and 
engineers. The first two are more pleasant, the third more certain/ 
English snobbery played a devastating and destructive role. The 
machine-men were not welcome in society. To be so, they must first 
pass through the transfiguring and cleansing process of acquiring a 
landed estate. Because, in this sense, English society was so open, the 
industrialists never became an assertive, self-protective and influential 
caste: they could escape into respectability by buying broad acres, and 
the seats, peerages and political power which went with them. Money 
was the sole materialistic incentive of industrial pioneering; all others - 
social position, political influence, public esteem, intellectual approval - 
were non-industrial, even anti-industrial. 

If England became an industrial country against the current of social 
approval, it is hardly surprising that its growth was unsystematic, 
haphazard and violently irresponsible. It emerged from the unplanned 
activities of small men, and it remained decentralised, composed of 
tiny or medium-sized firms, often highly specialised; there was no public 
or private pressure to produce an integrated national, or even regional, 
structure. We still suffer from these evils today. But the horrors pro- 
duced at the time were far more obvious, though no one sought to relate 
them to causes. Though the English had learned the virtues of long-term 
planning in estate-management - it had become part of their moral 
code - industry was created without any forethought, or any con- 
sciousness of the need for it. The first generation of factories were built 
to employ steam only for spinning. Their enormous output brought into 
existence a quarter-million of hand-loom weavers, who were completely 



outside the factory system. When the power-looms arrived in quantity, 
rising from 2,400 in 1813 to 224,000 in 1850, the independent weavers 
were mercilessly starved out of existence. This human tragedy was an 
industrial tragedy, too, for these wretched families, by accepting de- 
pressed wages, allowed inefficient factories to operate on marginal 
profits long after they should have been replaced. Already by the 18405, 
England had lost her technological lead in cotton : and even a diminished 
rate of expansion could only be maintained by exploiting protected 
colonial markets in the backward parts of the world. 

The growth of population, indeed, did not cause the industrial revolu- 
tion in England; it very nearly aborted it. Factories paid higher wages 
than domestic industries; all the same, they were very low, chiefly 
because most of the factory hands were women and children. Low 
wages kept home consumer demand down; worse still, they removed 
the chief incentive to replace primitive machinery by the systematic 
adoption of new technology. State limitations of human exploitation 
came too late, and were too ineffective, to make the quest for productiv- 
ity a virtue : the English did not discover it until the twentieth century, 
by which time the trade union movement had constructed powerful 
defences against it. No attention was paid to management efficiency, 
cost accounting, development research or the planned relationship 
between skill and machinery. Profits could be made without such frills; 
and when trade declined and profits fell, the answer was simply to cut 
production and lay off labour. When world credit crises occurred in the 
18203, 18305 and 18403, as they periodically did, without warning or 
apparent cause or cure, no one thought to compensate for the drop in 
exports by stimulating home demand. On the contrary, wages were 
allowed to fall and unemployment to rise: the men who controlled 
society, even enlightened and well-informed men like Peel, simply 
waited in a spirit of pure Micawberism. 

Cotton as a prime motive force of national economic growth was a 
fading instrument even in the 18305. The huge distress, and the con- 
sequent agitation, of these years made many people believe that the 
industrial revolution was on the point of collapse. And so it was. Cotton 
was too narrow and vulnerable a base to produce self-generating 
advance. The Chartists, rightly according to the evidence available 
to them, rejected economic solutions and concentrated exclusively on a 
political programme. Long before Marx, they thought the final crisis 
of capitalism was at hand; they wanted democracy to mitigate and 
civilise its consequences. Corn Law Repeal was the only widely accepted 
economic panacea - as it turned out, an irrelevant one. The economic 
schoolmen, and their political pupils, still clung to the subsistence 



theory of wages : if men were paid more than they needed to stay alive, 
they would simply work less. Not until about 1870 did anyone in England 
grasp the economic virtues of high wages. To end the Corn Laws, it 
was thought by the enlightened, would enable manufacturers to keep 
wages low and so profits high: thereby lay progress. 

In the end the English economy was saved by accident, and with it 
the social system. It was as though, as with the most primitive system 
of agriculture, the possibilities of growth in one set of fields had been 
exhausted, and the tribe moved on to virgin lands. Demand for cotton 
fluctuated alarmingly; but demand for coal, a much older industry, 
grew steadily: by 1842 Britain was producing 30 million tons annually, 
two-thirds of the world's output, though most of it went into English 
fireplaces. And the needs of mining gave a violent propulsion to the 
capital goods industries. The stuff had to be moved in ever-increasing 
quantities: so steam was at last applied to transport. In 1825 the 
Stockton-Darlington line was built to get coal from the north-east fields 
to the ports of shipment. It was a primitive goods-line, run like a road, 
with coal-owners supplying their own trucks and even engines. But it 
made enormous profits, and it was seen as the future. There was a little 
railway boom in 1835-7, an( i an enormous one in the late 18405. By 
1850 over 6,000 miles of track had been laid in Britain. Railways were 
a much more spectacular development even than cotton: they were not 
concentrated in limited areas, but ubiquitous - they literally cut through 
all the delicate and traditional strands of a still rural society. They also 
absorbed colossal quantities of capital - they could not be self-financed 
like cotton factories - and were closely related to all the advanced 
technologies. They gave an enormous and sustained impulse to the 
British economy, and dramatically ended the first crisis in capitalism. 
They stimulated new ranges of metal industries, which in turn produced 
others. The railways led to the ocean-going steamships, and so to the 
great shipyards. These new industries paid high wages: they had to; 
and the percentage in the total work-force employed in them rose 
steadily. By 1914, indeed, engineering embraced the largest single 
group of male workers, and the highest paid. There were great leaps 
forward in steel, and an ever-growing demand for coal, which gave work 
to 1-2 million by the IQIOS. 

High wages and engineering created the social basis of mid- Victorian 
stability. Social problems which had seemed insoluble and menacing 
in the mid-i84os had vanished from sight a few years later. Chartism 
collapsed; the working class was de-politicised for a generation; the 
events of 1848, which terrified the Continent, were a fiasco in England, 
as lower-middle-class Special Constables kept a diminished and 



bewildered multitude at bay. The constitution, which had barely survived 
in 1830-32, was firmly re-established as the sole custodian of human 
felicity, and the parliamentary statute as the only engine of progress 
and justice. There was a genuine degree of reconciliation between 
classes. Peel laid down the maxim: 'Whatever be your financial difficul- 
ties or necessities, you must so adapt your measures ... as not to bear 
on the comforts of the labouring classes of society/ This was high Tory 
doctrine, but increasingly endorsed by the bourgeois elements now 
fully integrated and identified with the property-state. The middle 
classes know/ said Shaftesbury, 'that the safety of their lives and 
property depends upon their having round them a peaceful, happy and 
moral population/ The workers turned to education and self-improve- 
ment. 'Denounce the middle-classes as you may/ an anti-Corn Law 
speaker told a Chartist gathering, 'there is not a man among you worth 
a halfpenny a week that is not anxious to elevate himself among them/ 
But if the second phase of the industrial revolution brought the 
English social and political stability, and even a measure of widely 
spread prosperity, it ultimately dethroned them from their unique 
position in the world economy. In the first phase we exported exclusively 
consumer goods; in the second, machines and technology. The differ- 
ence is important. Until the 1830$, England was the only industrialised 
country; the English had performed the miracle, and the key to it was 
still in their exclusive possession. At that stage, the English could still, 
by an act of conscious and deliberate policy, have set a double standard 
for themselves and the rest of the world. They might have circum- 
scribed the major industrial developments within the limits of the 
British Isles, and denied the other developing countries, notably the 
United States, France and Germany, the financial capital, the capital 
goods, the expertise in knowledge and skilled personnel, to construct 
their own industrial bases. Such a policy was not beyond the bounds of 
possibility. It would doubtless have aroused intense foreign antagon- 
ism. But Britain was then in a position to apply the new industrial 
processes to military technology in a manner denied to the world 
beyond, and to achieve an overwhelming supremacy in the use of fire- 
power over any other nation or group of nations. This was, indeed, 
English naval policy, maintained with increasing difficulty until 1914- 
But the two-power standard, as operated by Britain, was essentially 
defensive. It never seems to have occurred to the English even to 
consider the possibility of exploiting the new industrial power they had 
created to achieve and maintain a world hegemony of advanced 
weapons. Still less did it seem to them right or desirable to confine 
the industrial age to its insular base. Other nations might have taken 



a very different attitude. They might have applied logic and foresight 
and chauvinism to the problem of restricting heavy industry to a single, 
national power-base, and to erecting a high and perpetual barrier of 
technology between themselves and the rest of the world. But England 
was an open society. It lacked the psychology of a fortress-civilisation. 
The English saw themselves as superior: but it was a superiority of 
degree, not of kind. Even in their most manic phase, even when they saw 
themselves as the chosen people, they sought to be missionaries, not 
conquerors. They had no desire to be the master-race. The world was 
there to be evangelised, not conquered. Everything English was for ex- 
port. They wanted the sincere flattery of imitation, not the servility of 
helots. The world could have English political and constitutional habits, 
free. It could have English industrial habits and experience too, at a 
fair commercial price. To the English, no other decision seemed pos- 
sible. The matter was not even debated. It was just allowed to happen. 
Thus, in the middle decades of the century, England became the 
workshop of the world; and, in the process, helped to create rival work- 
shops throughout it. In the 18505 Britain produced two-thirds of the 
world's coal, half of its iron, more than half its steel, half its cotton 
cloth, 49 per cent of its hardware, virtually all its machine-tools. The 
industrialisation of half a dozen major economies took place by courtesy 
of British tools, patents, industrial know-how and skilled personnel; 
and it was largely financed by British capital. By 1840 Britain had 
160 million invested abroad; by 1873 nearly 1,000 million. During 
this period international trade multiplied five times over, and passed 
the 2,000 million mark. The railway-steamship age created the modern 
world-market economy; the English device of the gold standard was 
generally adopted, and centred on London as the financial pivot of the 
liberal international trading system. For the English, it was the high- 
water mark of their fortunes relative to the rest of the world. English 
ideas, institutions, attitudes, tastes, pastimes, morals, clothes, laws, 
customs, their language and literature, units of measurement, systems 
of accountancy, company law, banking, insurance, credit and exchange, 
even - God help us ! - their patterns of education and religion became 
identified with progress across the planet. For the first time, the in- 
finite diversities of a hundred different races, of tens of thousands of 
regional societies, began to merge into standard forms: and the matrix 
was English.* 

* Helped by the fact that Britain was also the leading exporter of people. Between 
1750 and 1900 the population of Europe rose from 140 to 401 million, raising its share of 



While England was evangelising the world - forging and exporting the 
matrix - the English were engaged in a protracted and in many ways 
unsuccessful struggle to civilise themselves. We regard the nineteenth 
century as the great age of reform, and indeed it was, in the sense that 
virtually all the institutions and attitudes of English society were 
re-examined and altered so that the structure which surrounds us today 
is in most ways the product of that time. But little that was entirely 
new was added ; hardly anything which was essentially old was removed ; 
and the net effect was rather to rationalise and strengthen the basic 
components of the eighteenth-century nation than to rebuild it from 
its foundations. All that England really got in the age of reform was 
an elaborate face-lift, a piece of cosmetic surgery which left the old 
bones of property and class virtually intact, in some ways stronger than 
before. We can learn a great deal about the English - and in particular 
about their inability to escape from their present-day predicament - by 
examining this process of conservation by change. 

On Thursday 8 October 1885, a remarkable funeral took place at 
Westminster Abbey. The Earl of Shaftesbury, better known to the 
older generation as Lord Ashley, had been the most pertinacious and 
ubiquitous of all the great Victorian free-lance reformers. He was a 
Tory by birth and conviction; he opposed, though with increasing 
diffidence, all schemes of political reform. In some ways he was a reac- 
tionary. As a fundamentalist evangelical, he was a powerful enemy of 
secular education, and one of the architects of the Sunday Observance 
Laws. But he was not a party man. He declined office. He loathed or- 
ganisational politics; he thought government was impersonal, cynical, 
materialistic and often grossly hypocritical - and he had a long and 
bitter experience of negotiating with British governments. Ultimately, 
he predicted government would take over the task of making a better 
world; but in the meantime he, and other voluntary do-gooders, had 
the sacred duty of standing between defenceless groups of humanity 
and the blind or malevolent forces which degraded them. He was, as he 
put it, 'the great pis-aller'. It is easy to sneer at Shaftesbury, from 
behind the ramparts of the Welfare State. He exuded paternalism, and 

world population from a fifth to a quarter; within Europe, Britain's share rose from 5-7 
to 9 per cent. The British Isles provided the lion's share of the European emigrants, 
especially in the first half of the nineteenth century; even in the period 1850-1900, 10 
million out of 23 million European emigrants came from the British Isles. The chief 
target was the United States. Its first census (1790) revealed that 80 per cent of the white 
population was English, 92 per cent British, Between 1815 and 1914, out of 35 million 
fresh emigrants to the US, ,20 million were British. In 1950 it was estimated that total 
world population of British' stock numbered 140 million, half in the US, one-third in the 
British Isles. See D.F. Macdonald The Great Migration', in Britain Pre-Eminent : Studies 
in British World Influence in the igth Century, edited by C. J. Bartlett (London, 1969). 



the unctuous religiosity of the Sabbatarian. Yet in a real sense he repre- 
sented all that is best in the English character. He not only loved 
justice and hated cruelty: he devoted his entire energies throughout a 
very long life to doing something practical about it. 'Practical', indeed, 
was the word he always applied to his religion. He denounced what he 
called the 'speculative Christianity' of men like Keble and Pusey, 
its obsession with dogma and ritual. He honestly believed that there 
was a real struggle between good and evil going on in the world, and 
that the Christian must throw himself wholeheartedly into it. He 
thought the Devil was actively at work through slave-owners and 
factory bosses, through the men who forced opium on China and the 
politicians who abetted them, through fathers who beat children and a 
materialistic society which refused to educate them, through the massed, 
complacent ranks of the Victorian middle and upper classes, enjoying 
unprecedented opulence based on a morass of cruelty and deprivation. 
No worthy cause in his day went without his eager and energetic 
support. His mind was blunt and uninquisitive, but his heart was 
immense, and his purse (such as it was) always open. He had had a 
miserable childhood. His parents were cold, hard and merciless. His only 
comforter was a servant. He was brutalised at his private school, so 
that (as he said) he did not know which to fear most, term-time or 
holidays, and even the horrors of Harrow he regarded as blissful release. 
Such experiences were not uncommon, for the English have always 
believed in making life disagreeable for their children. Shaftesbury was 
remarkable in that he carried into adult life a blazing determination to 
lift some of the burden of cruelty, not only from children (though they 
had his first affection) but from all the weak and oppressed categories 
of mankind. 

His funeral was, as it were, a physical reflection of his efforts. It was 
a gathering of Victorian philanthropy at its most impressive, bizarre 
and (to our eyes) comic, a roll-call of the better forces in a harsh society 
earnestly striving to make itself less intolerable. The pall-bearers were 
men and boys from the Shoeblacks' Brigade, the Industrial Schools, 
the YMCA, the Costermongers' Mission, the Ragged Schools, the 
National Training Ships and the London City Mission. Packing the 
Abbey, and lining the streets of Westminster, were curiously dressed 
and pathetic contingents from all over England. They represented the 
Society for the Relief of Persecuted Jews and the society to convert 
them to Christianity, the Society for Suppressing the Opium Trade, and 
the Association for International Peace, societies for providing drinking- 
fountains for the poor, and surgical appliances for the crippled; there 
was the Tonic Sol-fa College and the women from the Female Inebriates, 



the RSPCA and the Anti- Vivisection Society, the Aid for Cripples' 
Homes and the Association of Bradford Factory Workers ; there were 
societies to prevent cruelty to children and to cure chest diseases; and, 
above all, a great multitude of clubs, associations, leagues, unions and 
missions to alleviate the vast spectrum of nineteenth-century misery - 
London Flower Girls, Unemployed Cab Drivers, Unemancipated Slaves, 
Poor Curates, Sons of Poor Clergymen, Turkish Refugees, Distressed 
Italian Immigrants, Blind Women, Fallen Women, Destitute Children, 
Abandoned Orphans, Distressed Seamen, Lifeboatmen's Families, 
Starving Chinese, Indian Females, Poor Parisians, Widows of Medical 
Men, Discharged Prisoners, Unemployed Railwaymen, Poor Irish, 
French Refugees, and Consumptive Girls. In all, delegations from 232 
different groups were there, and as the coffin was carried out for its 
last journey to Dorset, the band of the Costermongers' Temperance 
Society played the March from Saul. 

The gathering was an impressive record of endeavour and even 
achievement; and certainly Shaftesbury succeeded in placing on the 
statute book an astonishing variety of progressive laws, from his great 
Factory Act to the Act for the Protection of Merchant Seamen. But he 
died almost in despair: 'I cannot bear to leave the world/ he wrote at 
84, 'with all the misery in it/ His diaries and letters constantly express 
his dismay at the little that years and decades of effort had been able to 
achieve, and the shock of discovering at every turn fresh pockets of 
horror clamouring for legislative action. They are a terrible indictment 
of the forces of indifference and reaction in Victorian society: manu- 
facturers and economists, landowners and peers, insurance companies 
and religious pressure-groups; above all, the House of Lords, the Bench 
of Bishops, and the judges. Shaftesbury found governments of aU 
complexions icily neutral, and more inclined to raise difficulties than 
to remove them. Occasionally, he won important converts: both the 
Radical J. A. Roebuck and the Peelite Sir James Graham eventually 
admitted publicly that they had been wrong to oppose factory legisla- 
tion. More often, ministers and leading politicians dismissed him as a 
crank, a neurotic and a time-consuming nuisance, the source of what 
Lord Beaumont, spokesman of the Catholic peers, called the 'pitiful 
cant of pseudo-philanthropy'. Yet all Shaftesbury's measures were 
simply attempts to mitigate (scarcely end) abuses which would now - 
or even a decade or so after his death - be regarded as unspeakable 
barbarisms. His life was, and is, a discouraging illustration of the difficul- 
ties which confront anyone who tries to make the English change for the 
better. It took him 17 years of incessant agitation to secure the 1850 
Factories Act, and many more to get it working effectively. Another 17 



were spent on the Lunacy Act, a measure of simple humanity for the 
insane, and again another five years to operate it. Many of his bills were 
mutilated in committee, and so became dead-letters. As an MP he often 
fought his bills through the Commons, to see them destroyed in the Lords. 
As a peer, he sometimes successfully bullied the peers only to find that 
his support in the Commons had collapsed. Worst of all, having got a 
statute through, he discovered that the j udges could make it wholly futile. 
The story of the infant chimney-sweeps, or the 'climbing boys' as 
they were known, is a terrifying example of the massive resistance which 
English society presents to the reform of even the most spectacular 
and indefensible abuses. These boys formed a small group, perhaps 
never more than 10,000, but they were typical of many forgotten 
and brutalised classes, too weak to organise themselves, and therefore 
wholly dependent on philanthropic champions. They were recruited 
from workhouses, from the age of four up, and strictly bound as ap- 
prentices by the Poor Law Guardians; they could be imprisoned, and 
flogged, if they broke their articles by escaping. They not only swept 
the chimneys, but were used to put out fires; often they were forced up 
by the use of long pricks, and by applying wisps of flaming straw to 
their feet. They suffered from a variety of occupational diseases 
and many died from suffocation. What made the injustices from which 
they suffered more repellent was that the 'political nation' knew all 
about them : they were not tucked away in some obscure corner of the 
coal-fields or the London slums, but were regularly and visibly employed 
in the homes of the upper and middle classes. Everyone knew that 
tiny children (including a few girls) swept their chimneys. Indeed, the 
resistance to reform sprang from the unwillingness of the possessing 
classes to rebuild their chimneys, or to pay the higher fire-risk pre- 
miums which the insurance companies (who organised the opposition 
to reform in Parliament) claimed must follow if children were banned. 
Nor could anyone claim ignorance of the worst aspects of the system. 
As far back as 1760 two Sunday school teachers set up an agitation on 
the boys' behalf; and in 1785 one of them, Jonas Hanway, published a 
detailed account of the horrors in his Sentimental History of Chimney- 
Sweepers in London and Westminster. In 1788 an act was passed for- 
bidding the employment of children under eight; it was totally in- 
effective. In 1804, 1807, 1808 and 1809, new bills were thrown out. In 
1817 a Select Committee investigated, and published, a catalogue of 
sickening horrors - reinforced by a brilliant article by Sydney Smith 
in the Edinburgh Review - but a bill based on its findings was thrown 
out by the Lords. In 1834 a new bill was actually passed, limiting the 
age to ten, forbidding master-sweeps to send children up chimneys which 



were on fire, and stipulating that all future flues should be a minimum 
size of 14 inches by 9; but it was universally evaded, and became 

In 1840, aided by a passionate reformer from the Hand-in-Hand 
Insurance Office, Thomas Steven, Shaftesbury succeeded in carrying 
through yet another bill, against resistance that can only be called 
fanatical. Despite his efforts to bring test cases, it proved impossible 
to secure convictions in the courts. In 1851 he got another bill through 
the Lords, but it lapsed in the Commons for want of support. In 1853 
he produced a third bill; but it was referred to a Select Committee, 
which reported that it was 'inexpedient to proceed further*. He got a 
fourth bill through the Lords in 1854, but it was voted down in the 
Commons. In 1855 he could not even get it read a second time in the 
Lords. In 1861 he got the sweeps referred to the Children's Employ- 
ment Commission, and in consequence he persuaded Parliament to 
pass an act raising the age of employment to 16. This was in 1864; 
but two years later the Commission reported that the act was a failure. 
The fault lay not in the drafting, but in the general conspiracy of local 
authorities, magistrates, police, judges, juries and the public to frustrate 
the law. Boys continued to die as a result of glaring breaches of the 
act ; Shaftesbury noted two cases in 1872, and in 1873 he referred to the 
Lords the coroner's inquest on a boy aged seven who suffocated in a 
flue. In 1875, following the death of a boy aged 14, Shaftesbury at 
last secured a conviction for manslaughter against a master sweep. The 
sentence was only six months, but the case caught the eye of The 
Times, and in the ensuing agitation Shaftesbury finally carried a 
draconian bill through what he called a Very inattentive' Parliament. It 
had taken precisely 102 years to secure this elementary act of justice 
to defenceless children. 

The agonising gradualness of reform reflects not merely the gross 
indifference of a supposedly enlightened English public, but the sheer 
frictional power of English institutions, most of which, throughout the 
nineteenth century, grew stronger as they relinquished untenable 
outworks. Between 1790 and 1840 the monarchy lost its direct political 
power, partly because of the decline of patronage, and partly because 
of George ill's madness and his subsequent inability to discharge 
detailed business, the idleness and indifference of his sons, and the 
inexperience of his granddaughter. But Victoria made a tenacious 
recovery once she learned how to manipulate the system. She wholly 
declined to behave like a constitutional monarch ; she did not accept 
the principle that the sovereign reigned but did not rule; the notion 
that her power was confined to 'the right to be consulted, the right to 



encourage, and the right to warn* was a fantasy of Walter Bagehot's, 
based on pure ignorance of how the British political system actually 
worked. His British Constitution became a best-seller and deluded the 
nation. If Victoria ever read it, which is doubtful, how her receding 
chins must have quivered with delight, how she must have clapped her 
plump hands, how her short, stocky legs must have drummed the floor 
with satisfaction that this sophisticated editor, polymath and know-all 
should have been so completely taken in! The subsequent publication 
of her letters, and other documents, tell a very different story. From 
the 18405, she and her husband constantly intervened in foreign affairs, 
and invariably on the side of Continental reaction; both were fully 
paid-up members of the monarchs' trade union, as the Stuarts had been. 
After Albert's death, Victoria took an increasing and baleful interest 
in domestic politics, invariably on the side of reaction. After 1868 she 
was a straightforward party instrument, acting on behalf, and often 
with the advice and consent - even the active encouragement - of 
unscrupulous Tory leaders like Disraeli and Salisbury. Liberal ministers, 
and notably Gladstone, felt obliged to treat her with forbearance 
because they believed she was in danger of going insane, if crossed, and 
might confront Parliament with the intolerable difficulties of a regency 
crisis. They might hold fast against her on absolutely central issues; 
but in many appointments to the Church, the armed services, the 
Empire and even to the Government, they surrendered to her views. 
She rarely showed her hand openly (as over the Gordon telegram) but 
she was astonishingly active and relentless behind the scenes. She always 
threw her considerable weight against reform, and did her ingenious 
best to defeat Liberal measures or to secure Tory electoral victories. 
She could not halt reform; she could, and did, delay or emasculate it. 
She wore down her more progressive ministers by absorbing a phenom- 
enal amount of their time on her selfish and trivial family concerns.* 

* One example among many : in August 1872, during the fleet manoeuvres, the captain 
of the royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, insisted on firing the fleet's sunset gun, on the 
grounds that the Prince of Wales was aboard and took precedence over the senior admiral 
commanding. This flouted all naval traditions, for the fleet was theoretically at war, and 
firing the gun was an operational command. There was a tremendous outburst of Service 
wrath; Mr Goschen, the First Lord, naturally sided with the navy, and the Cabinet with 
Goschen; but the Queen vociferously supported the royal party, and for nine angry 
months stuck, literally, to her gun. The affair ended in compromise, as the navy and the 
Government were anxious to resume work. See Frederick Ponsonsby : Sidelights on Queen 
Victoria (London, 1930), Chapter i: The Fatal Gun'. Victoria's selfishness took many 
forms. Like George in, she liked under-heated houses, and her servants and guests 
suffered accordingly. She also insisted at meals that the plates should be removed the 
second she finished a course ; as she was served first, and wolfed her food, many went 
hungry. The only man who successfully protested against such proceedings was the 8th 
Duke of Devonshire: 'I say! Give that plate back!' 



Constitutional monarchy had to await the accession of her despised 
son; and even he, though genuinely anxious to act fairly between the 
parties, inherited her tradition of acting as a brake on radical change, a 
royal posture maintained to this day. For the reformer, the monarchy 
was always one more river to cross, and there were limits even to the 
energies of the great nineteenth-century pioneers. 

Around the throne spread the formidable buttresses of the House of 
Lords. There had been proposals to abolish it as far back as the six- 
teenth century, but throughout the age of reform no motion to this 
effect even got so far as the table of the House of Commons, despite the 
fact that the Peers overrode the wishes of MPs on over 100 occasions 
either by rejecting outright Commons bills or amending them beyond 
recognition. During the nineteenth century the upper house contained 
an overwhelming majority of Tory peers, and their hostility to non- 
Tory governments was only marginally qualified by the deliberate 
policy of the Tory leadership - not always enforced - of restraining the 
backwoodsmen to avoid a dangerous conflict between the Houses. 
Long before the Lords were christened 'Mr Balfour's Poodle', they had 
scurried back and forth to the commands of the Tory high command. 
In 1832, Macaulay asked the Earl of Clarendon how Wellington would 
justify the Reform Bill to the Lords. 'Oh, that will be simple enough. 
He'll say: "My Lords ! Attention ! Right about face! Quick march!" and 
the thing will be done/ If the Lords lost their pocket boroughs in 1832, 
they retained direct personal influence over more than half the Com- 
mons seats. In 1866 37 eldest sons, 64 younger sons, and 15 grandsons 
of peers sat as MPs, plus a further 100 closely related by marriage or 

Membership of the Lords broadly embraced the landowning classes, as 
the monumental 'Return of Landowners, 1873', known as the New 
Domesday, revealed. John Bateman's analysis, The Great Landowners 
of Britain and Ireland, based on the 'Return', calculated that 2,500 
people, the overwhelming majority peers or close relatives of peers, 
owned 45 per cent of all the agricultural land. The only parliamentary 
defeat the landed interest suffered throughout the period was the 
suspension of corn duties in 1846 : this, indeed, was why it caused such a 
sensation, because it was so unusual. In fact, for a whole generation it 
operated in favour of landowners, for Peel was anxious to encourage 
'high farming* and accompanied the measure with subsidies for im- 
provement, particularly drainage (cheap, factory-made field drains 
came on to the mass-market after 1842) ; rentals rose steadily in the 
middle decades of the century, and peers enormously increased their 
incomes by the development of urban house property, mining, the 



railways and ports. They derived more financial benefit from the 
industrial revolution than any other class, including the manufacturers 
themselves. Justifying their existence in 1867, Bagehot characteristic- 
ally underestimated their power: There is no country where a "poor 
devil of a millionaire" is so ill off as in England. The experiment is 
tried every day, and every day it is proved that money alone . . . will 
not buy "London Society ". Money is kept down, and so to say, cowed 
by the predominant authority of a different power/ In fact peers 
married into the new-rich without the smallest hesitation or scruple 
provided the terms of settlement were right; Lord Rosebery, for 
instance, snapped up the leading Rothschild heiress, with 100,000 a 
year to add to his 40,000, although he had little time for Jews. More 
to the point, the leading peers were in fact much richer than even the 
most successful industrialists: the Derbys, the Bedfords, the Devon- 
shires, the Westminsters and the Sutherlands, plus perhaps 40 other 
families, enjoyed regular incomes of between 100,000 and 400,000 a 

The Tory peers blocked the bills of Liberal governments in a skilful 
and systematic manner. But more insidious and damaging, in some 
respects, was the restraining pressure of the nominally Whig and Lib- 
eral peers. Although from the 18305, Whig peers drifted steadily into 
the Tory camp, leaving gaps which new creations could not fill, enough 
remained to exert powerful blackmail on the Liberal leaders. After 
Gladstone's smashing popular victory in the 1880 election, Earl Fitz- 
william wrote meaningfully to Earl Granville, Gladstone's deputy: 

I believe it is mainly through my instrumentality that six Liberal members 
have found seats in parliament. My own political opinions are well known, and 
I have every reason to believe that it was confidence in the moderation of 
my views, which brought about this success - you will therefore understand 
that I must take a deep interest in the formation of a cabinet which I and 
mine will have largely contributed to place in power. 

The hint was taken, to judge by the overwhelmingly aristocratic 
composition of Gladstone's 1880 Cabinet, which outraged rank-and- 
file Liberals. A few years before, indeed, Lord Harrington, a stupid and 

* The Earl of Derby's rental was nearly 300,000 a year; in 1893 he employed 727 
servants, gardeners and estate staff. The Dukes of Bedford, Portland, Devonshire, 
Sutherland and Northumberland, and the Marquess of Bute, were richer. See Randolph 
S. Churchill: Lord Derby, King of Lancashire (London, 1959). The richest of all was the 
Duke of Westminster, who had over 250,000 a year from his London properties alone. 
At his Cheshire house, Eaton 'Hall, he employed the following: 85 in the house and 
stables, 43 in the gardens, 32 in the stud and 168 on the estate. See the chart on p. 138 
of Gervase Huxley: Victorian Duke (Oxford, 1967). 


lazy man, chiefly interested in racing and women, had succeeded Glad- 
stone during his temporary retirement, on the grounds that it was 
invidious to choose between the more plebeian contenders and that 'no 
one need feel affronted by being passed over for the eldest son of the 
Duke of Devonshire*. Rosebery got the leadership for much the same 
reason in 1894. In point of fact, subservience to the prejudices and 
interests of Whig peers availed the Liberals not at all: the Whig rump 
ratted almost to a man over Home Rule in 1886. 

Much of the power of the Peers sprang from a misconception of their 
will to exert it, and from the self-deceptive hocus-pocus with which the 
English always surround matters of class. Too many Englishmen 
had swallowed Burke's pernicious nonsense about the 'chivalry' of the 
aristocracy, 'that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud sub- 
mission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, 
which kept alive even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom'. 
Gullible visitors accepted this conventional view. 'Of what use are the 
lords?' asked Ralph Waldo Emerson; and replied: They have been a 
social church proper to inspire sentiments mutually inspiring the lover 
and the loved . . . Tis a romance adorning English life with a wider 
horizon; a midway heaven fulfilling to their sense their fairy tales and 
poetry.' Yet if one examines the legislative record of the Lords, one 
finds precious little chivalry and no inspiration. The attitude of the 
Lords, wrote Shaftesbury, was invariably 'hard and unsentimental'. 
The peers benefited from the extraordinary conspiracy of silence which 
surrounded the sexual misdemeanours of the great, and the professional 
expertise of solicitors like Sir George Lewis, who specialised in keeping 
the peerage out of the courts (his papers were, alas, burned according 
to his instructions after his death). Most of them were selfish, irrespon- 
sible, short-sighted and mean. 

They benefited, too, from the raging middle-class snobbery which was 
such a feature of Victorian England, and from the grotesque cult of 
the 'gentleman', assiduously propagated by renegade-progressives like 
Thackeray. Macaulay had raged against this in 1833, writing to his 

The curse of England is the obstinate determination of the middle classes 
to make their sons what they call gentlemen. So we are overrun by clergymen 
without livings; lawyers without briefs; physicians without patients; authors 
without readers, clerks soliciting employment, who might have thriven, and 
been above the world, as bakers, watchmakers, or innkeepers. 

Yet Macaulay was himself both the victim, and the willing accomplice, 
of the system: though he was the greatest parliamentary orator of his 



generation, and a faithful party man, the Whigs excluded him from 
senior office purely on social grounds. Taine, writing his Notes sur 
VAngleterre in 1872, rightly pointed out that English snobbery was a 
grave source of economic weakness: the money-makers could easily 
obtain admission to the ruling class, but only at the price of abandoning 
their commercial attitudes - quite different industrial elites were by then 
growing up in Germany and America. It was true, as Charles de 
Montalembert argued in The Political Future of England (1856), that 
the anxiety of the new men to join the gentry was a source of 
political strength and stability. But strength for whom ? Stability for 

On the whole, the direct and indirect power of the Lords survived all 
the legislative assaults of successive governments: the extensions of 
the suffrage in 1867, 1869 and 1884, the Ballot Act (1872), the Corrupt 
Practices Act (1883) and the Redistribution Act (1885), which taken 
together effectively created a mass-democracy of males in Britain. As 
legislators, they were more successfully aggressive in the iSgos than in 
the 18403. Perhaps their neatest trick of all was to frustrate the in- 
tentions of the Local Government Act of 1888, which replaced the old 
Quarter Sessions of JPs by democratically elected County Councils. 
In 29 out of 48 counties, the lord-lieutenants, who had presided over the 
old sessions, were elected chairmen of the new councils. Peers dominated 
nearly all the rest, a notable exception being Durham, which fell into 
the grip of rurally based mining communities. As the Earl of Harrowby 
wrote to Salisbury, the Prime Minister: 'We shall all have to live in 
the country for the next three years, to keep things straight/ Peers are 
still keeping things straight in most of the counties in the 19703. At the 
urging of the Marquess of Abergavenny, Salisbury adopted the policy 
of giving the lieutenancies to young, 'reliable' peers, who would 
outlive any risky Liberal interregnum. Thus, the Earl of Powis, whom 
he made Lord-Lieutenant of Shropshire in 1895, held the job until 
1951, triumphantly surviving one Liberal and three Labour adminis- 
trations, two wartime coalitions, a national government and 13 prime 

After 1875, as we shall see, the landed strength of the English 
aristocracy was progressively eroded, not so much by legislative action 
as by external events; but in some important ways the class system 
was systematically reinforced, and new fields in which it could operate 
were opened up. What the English deplored in foreigners as servility 
they applauded in themselves as 'deference', or 'beneficent snobbery' 
as G. M. Trevelyan unsmilingly called it. J. S. Mill wrote despair- 
ing to Mazzini in 1858: 



The English, of all ranks and classes, are at bottom, in all their feelings, 
aristocrats. They have the conception of liberty, and set some value on it, 
but the very idea of equality is strange and offensive to them. They do not 
dislike to have many people above them as long as they have some below 
them . . . 

Such attitudes were found even among the new Labour MPs (in time 
to be in the market for peerages themselves), and their humourless 
Fabian mentors. In 1906, on the morrow of the great radical landslide, 
Beatrice Webb's diary contains revealing notes on two dinner-parties, 
one at the Asquiths', the other at the Lord George Hamiltons'. There was 
no doubt which she preferred : 

The Tory aristocrat and his wife were, in relation to their class, living the 
simple life; and the Yorkshire manufacturer's son was obviously 'swelling it', 
to use the vulgar expression for a vulgar thing. 

The Webbs ended up as peers themselves; so, for that matter, did the 
Asquiths. If the Parliament Act eventually removed the Lords' veto, 
it did not seriously damage their political power, still less their social 
influence, based as it was, and is, on the hereditary principle. And the 
last attempt to demolish the hereditary basis, in 1968, was character- 
istically frustrated by a rabid, cross-party coalition of Tory troglodytes 
and Labour neanderthals, the latter group led by a member of one of 
England's leading establishment families, which already includes two 
life peers and a Knight Bachelor. How William Pitt would have 
laughed - or, rather, sneered, for he despised peerages himself and 
rightly considered his father made a fatal error in taking one. 

One important way in which the Victorian English underpinned the 
class structure, even exported it, was by inventing sport, and then or- 
ganising it on a class basis. All kinds of ancient pastimes, and some new 
ones, were drawn into the net. Racing was codified in the 18405, with 
gentlemen as owners and arbiters (through the Jockey Club), the middle 
classes as trainers, and the proles as riders (except in steeplechasing, 
where a mixing of the classes was thought desirable to underpin 
support for fox-hunting). When cricket was organised in 1846, this 
once-classless game was subjected to a rigid division into gentlemen and 
players, with apartheid dressing-rooms and (until very recently) a 
distinction even in the way names were listed on the score-cards. Big- 
game hunting was introduced for the upper classes, mountaineering for 
the upper middle class, rugby (1846) for the middle class and Welshmen, 
the Boat Race (1856) for the upper classes and clergymen, Association 
Football (1858) for the workers, open golf (1861) for the middle class 
and Scotsmen; finally in the i86os and 18705, prizefighting became 



boxing, for the gentry to watch and control, and the workers to perform, 
and tennis, badminton and croquet were graciously bestowed on re- 
spectable ladies. There was something for everyone in Victorian sport, 
and everyone firmly in his, or her, place. 

Yet if there was a powerful current in society tending to institution- 
alise the class system, there was an equally powerful current of opinion 
demanding that society should become more efficient. How could the 
two be reconciled? The Victorians devised a neat, pragmatic solution, 
which deserves examination because it illustrates, in classic form, the 
genius of the English for fossilising change, and rendering it socially 
harmless, even while it is taking place. There were three elements. The 
administrative reorganisation of central government carried through 
by Pitt and others working in the Shelburne tradition had transformed 
a corrupt, oligarchic and court-orientated muddle into the nucleus of a 
modern machine. It was now beginning to be capable of discharging 
tasks which hitherto had been beyond the resources of any State. 
Secondly, the Benthamite tradition of utilitarianism indicated strongly 
what these tasks should be : Parliament should use the weapon of the 
statute to remodel the offensively inefficient jungle of life into a neat and 
ordered structure, and civil servants should see that the law was carried 
out. But this meant not merely an enlargement of government ac- 
tivities but also a progressive expansion of its personnel. The experi- 
ence of the early attempts to regulate factories, before 1833, showed that 
they were futile without an inspectorate. 

This was only one of many examples. From the early decades of the 
century onwards there was an irresistible impulse to investigate the 
ills of society and propose remedies, using the machinery of the parlia- 
mentary committee and the Royal Commission. Charles Darwin was 
later to write : 'My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for 
grinding general laws out of large collections of facts/ His method 
brilliantly summarises the reforming process. The committee examined 
witnesses, accumulated volumes of facts, summarised its conclusions 
and reported; Parliament acted; government enforced. Dickens might 
deplore, in Hard Times, the undue importance the Victorians attached 
to facts, but their massive and effective deployment was the only way 
to overcome the inertia of society. The reformers usually won in the end 
because they won the argument ; and they won the argument because 
they marshalled the facts in such a way as to appeal simultaneously 
to men's reason and their hearts, to their commercial sense and to their 
moral sense. Shaftesbury and those in the evangelical tradition could 
put the emotional case; but it required also men like Sir Edwin Chad- 
wick, from the very different Benthamite tradition, to put the factual 



case. He was able not merely to state, but to prove, that reform saved 
money. The real argument of his famous Report on the Sanitary 
Condition of the Labouring Population, the most impressive of all the 
Victorian reforming documents, was that it cost less to spend money 
on the preventive measures of public health works, than to cure 
epidemics. The Report, published in 1842, was a best-seller; naturally 
it met resistance, but, as if by an act of God, an outbreak of cholera 
intervened, rammed home Chadwick's point, and propelled the Public 
Health Act of 1848 through Parliament. Thereafter, the fact-men, 
working in bizarre but effective harness with the evangelical moralists, 
found the going easier. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman sneered at 
the prevailing philosophy: 

Virtue is the child of knowledge, and vice of ignorance. Therefore, e.g. 
education, periodical literature, railroad travelling, ventilation, drainage, 
and the arts of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral 
and happy. 

This was good for a laugh, and it is true there was no particular logic in 
the Victorian approach. All the same, the combined factual-moral 
analysis appealed strongly to enlightened English society, and it pro- 
duced impressive legislative results. But how were the new laws to be 
enforced? Or, rather, who was to enforce them? 

Here we come to the third element: the staffing of an expanding 
civil service. The clerks of the minimum state were the junior offspring 
of the ruling class; they were appointed by ministers from among their 
acquaintance and families, and by parliamentary nomination. Such 
people were incapable, and often unwilling, to undertake the new 
tasks. In any case there were too few of them. The census of 1851 
registered less than 75,000 public employees (there were 932,000 in 
France in 1846), the vast majority working in the customs, excise and 
post office. Only 1,628 manned the central departments of civil govern- 
ment. Where to get the new men? The answer was obvious. The 
1832 Reform Act had already begun to integrate the middle classes 
with the political nation. They must now be brought into the admini- 
trative nation. Obviously, in this case, the aristocratic principle of 
selection could not work. So selection by merit, by competitive examina- 
tion, must be applied. India had already shown the way. Running a 
subcontinent of over 100 million people demanded a professional 
administrative class, and competition had been employed to recruit 
it. The system threw up men of genius like Macaulay, Grote and James 
Mill, and had thoroughly justified itself by results; in 1853, it was 
extended to all Indian posts. The lessons of India were applied to Eng- 



land: the Northcote-Trevelyan report in 1853 was followed by the Civil 
Service Commission two years later, and Sir Gregory Hardlines was 
firmly in the saddle. The mess of the Crimea, like another act of God, 
intervened to point the factual moral about the armed services, too; 
and it was only a matter of time before commission by purchase went 
and the army likewise embraced the examination panacea. 

The triumphant vindication of the survival of the fittest in government 
service, neatly coinciding with Darwin's Origin of Species of 1859, was a 
famous and crushing victory for the enlightened elements in Victorian 
society. Opponents of the reforms were made to seem obscurantists, 
and no doubt they were. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, some of their 
arguments seem surprisingly impressive. Trollope doubted whether the 
ability to excel in exams was in fact the best criterion of a good civil 
servant ; and in an age when the whole principle of written examination 
is being challenged, we tend to sympathise. But some more fundamental 
arguments were put, about the very nature of English government and 
society. Giving evidence in 1857, Earl Grey made a fool of himself by 
suggesting that exams for army officers would induce a high rate of 
brain disease as, he said, had already happened in France. He also, 
however, voiced a valid fear. If, he said, promotion was by merit, the 
army would 'always be desirous to force the country into war'. He was 
thinking of Napoleon and his marshals: The English had always dis- 
liked standing forces, controlled by career-officers. They accepted the 
need for a large navy, officered by men who knew their business: it 
posed no threat to their liberties. But the army, they felt, should re- 
flect the political nation, should be in a literal sense identical with it. 
Its officers should come from broad acres, should constitute not a 
military caste but the defensive arm of property. To fight was a last 
resort. Under purchase, soldiering was a social rather than a professional 
career. Officers disliked fighting, above all abroad; they were liable to 
resign their commissions if subjected to wartime inconvenience. Beau 
BrummelTs public career as an arbiter of taste began in 1799 when he 
left the loth Hussars in disgust because it was moved to Manchester; 
England was then engaged in a European war, but no one thought 
the worse of him. Regimental officers despised the 'Indians* as vulgar 
careerists, always on the lookout for wars and promotion: they expected 
to become a colonel for nothing, merely through efficiency and valour. 
They might just as well be Frenchmen ! Lord Cardigan may have been 
an arrogant fool, but he undoubtedly had the English constitution on 
his side. And (others might add) if the old system did not work in the 
Crimea, that was an added reason for avoiding Crimeas. 

But such arguments could not repel the gathering impetus of 



Victorian enlightenment. The army became professional, after a fashion. 
By the 18803 and 18903 young officers, having sweated through Sand- 
hurst and Woolwich, daunted by the long columns of the Army List 
barring their way to the top, were desperately anxious to get into action, 
as Churchill's My Early Life eloquently testifies. Professional ambition 
became a powerful driving force behind the spread of empire. A charac- 
teristic novel of the period, A. E. W. Mason's The Four Feathers, 
centres on a hero who is branded a coward, because he resigned his 
commission to avoid service in the Sudan; England had come a long 
way since the days of Beau Brummell. Moreover, as soldiering became a 
science, the envious eyes of ambitious English officers began to turn 
ever more frequently to the great and growing Continental armies, and 
to speculate on the role Britain might play in a vast European conflict. 
From speculation grew planning, and from planning grew secret 
international staff-talks, integration of plans, the concept of an ex- 
peditionary force. The transformation of the English army officer is 
one of the many sinister chains of events which led to the catastrophe 
of 1914, burying the Northcote-Trevelyan efficiency in a sea of Flanders 
mud. Oddly enough, the reforms did not dislodge the gentry from 
command, especially in the cavalry; and the cavalry got the top jobs. 
In the Crimea, cavalry commanders merely killed their own men and 
horses; in the Great Professional War they killed a generation.* 

In the civil departments the reforms brought about a more subtle, 
but equally sinister and far more permanent change. The old constitution 
had a narrow franchise, but within its limits it was supremely repre- 
sentative because ministers accepted absolutely their day-to-day 
responsibility to Parliament. They feared 'bureaucracy' as they feared a 
standing army; and if their fears seemed atavistic by the nineteenth 
century, they were based on sound instinct, as the twentieth 
century was to prove. When the young Queen Victoria asked Palmer- 
ston what was 'bureaucratic influence', he replied: 

In England the Ministers who are at the head of the several departments of 
the State, are liable any day and every day to defend themselves in Parlia- 
ment, and in order to do this, they must be minutely acquainted with all the 
details of the business of their offices, and the only way of being constantly 
armed with such information is to conduct and direct those details themselves. 

* What is more, cavalry officers, like Lord Trenchard, created the structure, and in- 
spired the military philosophy, of the RAF, above all the concept of strategic bombing, 
which the RAF first elaborated and then passed on to the Americans (and the Russians). 
The thermo-nuclear devastation of cities by intercontinental rockets is thus ultimately 
derived from the notions of nineteenth-century English cavalry commanders. When 
General Curtis Lemay, head of Strategic Air Command, spoke of bombing people 'back 
into the Stone Age', he voiced the authentic tones of a modern Lord Cardigan. 



He contrasted this with the loose organisation of Continental govern- 
ments, where executive power fell into irresponsible hands. Now 
Palmerston was speaking in the Pitt tradition: Pitt ran the Treasury 
like a private office, initiating and controlling all the details of govern- 
ment finance. This was the way Palmerston ran foreign policy. Sir 
George Shee, one of his Under-Secretaries, wrote to another, John 
Backhouse, in 1832 : 

Lord Palmerston, you know, never consults an Under-Secretary. He merely 
sends out questions to be answered or papers to be copied when he is here in 
the evenings, and our only business is to obtain from the clerks the infor- 
mation that is wanted. 

The clerks were literally clerks, and even Under-Secretaries, as we know 
from Palmerston's papers, had occasionally to turn their hand to copy- 
ing when the clerks were overworked. 

It was against this background that some of the older civil servants 
resisted reform. One of them, Sir R. M. Bromley, told the Select Committee 
on Civil Service Appointments in 1860 that the virtue of the nomination 
system was that it integrated Parliament with the administration. 
Civil servants were usually closely connected with members of both 
Houses of Parliament; they were part of the ruling class, in no sense a 
separate caste structure. Open competition, he continued, would even- 
tually produce a very powerful bureaucracy, not easily subjected to 
political control. To this we might add the shrewd predictions of Sir 
Henry Taylor in The Statesman (1836). Reflecting on the consequences 
of a wider suffrage, he pointed out that powerful civil servants, who 
willingly took orders from a Ministerial duke or earl, would be less 
inclined to obey 'a man raised from a lower rank in society to a high 
official station'. As we shall see, these predictions were tragically ful- 
filled, especially in the Foreign Office and the Treasury. The assertion 
of bureaucratic control which marked the beginning of the twentieth 
century coincided with the period when the new type of civil servants 
got to the top. These men thought they were a cut above the politician 
because they had risen through the survival-of-the-fittest process of 
competitive examination and promotion by merit - as opposed to 
Ministers, who had merely exploited the workings of democratic choice 
by an ignorant electorate. Thus real power tended to slip away from the 
grasp of the masses at the very moment when they appeared to be 
acquiring it at last. It was a new version of the old English vanishing 

In any case, steps were taken to ensure that the new mandarins of 
the State came from the right catchment area, and were subjected to an 



appropriate social conditioning. How, we asked, could class be recon- 
ciled with 'efficiency' ? The answer was through the education system. 
At the beginning of the nineteenth century this presented an extra- 
ordinarily confused picture: over 800 charitable foundations, many of 
great antiquity, whose original purposes had become distorted and 
which had often been taken over for the exclusive use of the middle or 
the upper class; a number of highly effective Dissenting Academies, 
which had produced the leaders and the skilled personnel of the first 
industrial revolution; and thousands of charity schools, run by Anglican 
voluntary societies, which gave a rudimentary education to a section 
of the workers. Topping it all were the Oxbridge colleges, exclusively 
staffed by Anglican clergymen, and for the exclusive use of Anglican 

There had always been, in England, a tradition of comprehensive, 
and classless, education, which indeed went back to Alfred. The charities 
had originally been founded to promote it, and had been immensely 
strengthened in the sixteenth century in the wake of the Reformation. 
These institutions made possible the achievements of the English in the 
seventeenth century, and lay at the root of their world predominance. 
But the property-state had allowed them to be absorbed in the class 
structure, and interclass schools had virtually disappeared by 1800. 
Men like Henry Brougham, who led the movement for the reform of 
charitable abuses, were anxious to amalgamate the educational chari- 
ties with the new movement for educating the poor. He believed, quite 
explicitly, in comprehensive education. If his views had prevailed, 
Britain's education today would be entirely different; vastly more 
efficient, non-sectarian, and classless. But he was in a tiny minority. 
Even educational 'progressives' , like Dr Andrew Bell, thought the purpose 
of education was to reflect, and reinforce, the social divisions. As he 
wrote in one of his books : 

It is not proposed that the children of the poor be educated in an extensive 
manner, or even taught to write and cypher. Utopian schemes ... for the 
diffusion of general knowledge, would soon . . . confuse that distinction of 

ranks and classes of society, on which the general welfare hinges There is 

a risk of elevating by an indiscriminate education, the minds of those doomed 
to the drudgery of daily labour above their condition, and thereby rendering 
them discontented and unhappy in their lot. 

The 'risk', indeed, was not very serious; a quarter of a century later, the 
Select Committee on the Education of the Poorer Classes (1837-8) calcu- 
lated that only i in 12 had any kind of education, only i in 24 an educa- 
tion of any use; in the great industrial cities the proportion fell to i 



requirements of the civil service and the forces were adjusted to fit in 
with the curricula of these schools, and the same relationship was 
maintained between them and Oxbridge. Thus the road to the top, 
even in a 'reformed' and 'efficient' society, lay exclusively through, as it 
were, a toll-gate geared to the class system. The triumph of the exam, 
indeed, reinforced the structure. Wealthy dissenters, who were am- 
bitious for their children, found themselves compelled to send them to 
Anglican public schools. In this respect, the lifting of the ban from 
Dissenters at Oxbridge made no difference. (Catholics remodelled 
their own public schools on the Anglican prototypes.) Worse, the 
grammar schools did their best to ape the public schools; and the new 
secondary schools, finally created in the last decades of the century, 
tried to ape the grammar schools. At the bottom of the heap, 
elementary schools, established in 1870 and made compulsory after 
1880, did their best to reflect the educational and organisation patterns 
of their betters. The whole structure was underpinned by the all- 
powerful schools inspectors, recruited of course by examination. The 
first generation were a mixed lot, and included some originals and 
eccentrics, for the newer public schools had not yet begun to process 
a regular middle-class intake. But the second and subsequent 
generations uniformly enforced the educational attitudes of the elite 

The effect was not merely to reinforce the class structure but to deny 
knowledge. The muddle of English education in the eighteenth century 
had some surprisingly healthy features. Some of the schools for poor 
children were very good indeed, with a wide curriculum and enterprising 
teachers. Many grammar schools taught science a hundred years before 
Eton. The Dissenting Academies were usually admirable. The very lack 
of system had its virtues, because it allowed experiment to flourish. 
When reform came, and the class matrix was imposed, it brought 
with it the absolute paramountcy of the classics (plus Euclid mathe- 
matics), whose survival had been ensured by the 1660 Restoration, 
and which Oxbridge and the leading schools had perpetuated. Thus in 
some crucial respects, English education actually took a step backward 
in the later nineteenth century, at a time when the United States, 
France and, above all, Germany were organising mass-education on 
modern lines. 

The great public schools, as standardised in the 18405, were an extra- 
ordinary combination of the barrack-room, the utilitarian prison, the 
medieval monastery, and the Athenian academy. The flogging was only 
one degree less severe than in the Wellingtonian army. Without 
exception, all the 'great' headmasters were floggers, though Moss of 



of Eton set it as the subject for a Latin prize essay (rather as, in 
the 19605, the Vatican strove to find Latin terms with which to 
denounce the contraceptive pill). Moberley of Winchester summed 
up their attitude to modern knowledge before the Public School 
Commission : 

... a boy who has learned grammar, has learned to talk and to write in all 
his life; he has possessed himself for ever of an instrument of power. A man 
who has learned the laws of electricity has got the facts of science, and when 
they are gone, they are gone for good and all. 

Under pressure, headmasters argued that what they taught must 

reflect the demands and standards of Oxbridge. But the argument was 

circular, for Oxbridge replied that they must build on what was taught 

in the schools. The truth is that Oxford and Cambridge had contributed 

virtually nothing to English education since the early seventeenth 

century ; since then, indeed, they had actually impeded it. The industrial 

revolution had been made possible by the fact that Dissenters like 

Priestley had been excluded from the endowed Anglican system. 

During the nineteenth century, Oxbridge and the public schools 

produced very few men of distinction in the sciences, engineering and 

the organisation of industry. Their products dominated politics, the 

Bar and the Church, and towards the end of the century the home and 

imperial civil service - as well, of course, as the armed services. But they 

did not turn out wealth-makers or creators. Of the scientists, Lord 

Rayleigh stayed one half at Eton, and Sir John Herschel a few months. 

Darwin was at Shrewsbury, but wrote in his Autobiography: 'Nothing 

could have been worse for the development of my mind than Doctor 

Butler's school/ Without exception, the rest of the great figures in 

British industry and science went to grammar schools or private 

academies or, like Faraday, had virtually no formal education. Not until 

Dr Sanderson went to Oundle towards the end of the century did any 

major public school take science seriously (though it is true T. H. 

Huxley was made a fellow of Eton). More ominous, in the long run, 

was the way in which the anti-science bias spread downwards from the 

elite schools, to embrace virtually the whole of the educational system. 

Not only did self-made engineers, scientists and industrialists send their 

children to public schools (Brunei's boys went to Harrow), but some of 

the more adventurous establishments accepted the classical bias to 

conform with the Oxbridge requirements. Even in conservative circles, 

there was some awareness that a great industrial nation like Britain 

was storing up trouble for herself. The Quarterly Review warned in 




England, at least as far as the natural and experimental sciences are con- 
cerned, seems in danger of sinking to the condition of what in political lan- 
guage would be called a third- or fourth-rate power. Our greatest men are 
perhaps still greater than those of any other nation; but the amount of quiet, 
solid, scientific work done in England is painfully less than that done in 
Germany, less even than that done in France. 

Oxbridge resisted the advance of science just as doggedly. Until the 
last decade of the century the amount of scientific work done in either 
university was negligible and the number of graduate engineers pro- 
duced by Britain was already very small by comparison with the 
United States and Germany.* The relative decline of Britain as a great 
industrial nation was already apparent by the 18705, and pronounced 
by the i88os; and it has, of course, continued ever since. It was pro- 
duced by a number of factors, but by far the most important was the 
backwardness of the English educational system. And for this the 
Anglican Church, with its incorrigible belief in the classics, was almost 
wholly responsible. One might say, indeed, that the triumph of Ang- 
licanism in the sixteenth century set England on the road to becoming a 
world power, and that the Indian summer which the Church enjoyed in 
the nineteenth century set in motion the slow process of decay, which 
continues, relentless and remorseless, as I write these words. The Eng- 
lish have paid a terrible price for Eton and Harrow, for Oxford and 

Curiously enough, this Indian summer, which allowed the Anglicans 
to establish a vice-like grip on all the elite institutions of education, 
came at a time when on every other front the established Church was on 
the retreat and its very foundations were being undermined by the 
spread of unbelief. If the High Church revival allowed it to capture 
the fellowships and the headmasterships, it lost the theological battles 
decisively: the retreat of Manning, Newman and so many others to 
Rome was a symptom of disaster. In 1800 the Church still retained a 
massive and satisfying array of temporalities: the annual incomes of 
the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Durham were 19,000 
apiece; one rectory was worth 7,000 a year; pluralism was universal 
and unchallenged - from 1780-1829, the Reverend the Earl of 

* Equally, Victorian Oxbridge contributed little to medical science. Medical academics 
were next to the clergy, the most violent opponents of university reform: in 1852, the 
Regius Professor of Clinical Medicine at Oxford strongly supported the Archbishop 
of Canterbury in maintaining the privileges of noble undergraduates. In 1877, the 
British Medical Journal engaged in a protracted controversy about the proposition 
that hams cured by menstruating women go bad. One correspondent thought that the 
matter 'might be decided by experiments made in lunatic asylums or prisons, under the 
direction of the medical officer' . 



Bridgewater held a Durham prebend and two benefices in Shropshire, 
while living in Paris surrounded by cats and dogs dressed as humans.* 
Fifty years later, the loot had been rationalised and equalised; there 
were complaints of clerical poverty from all sides ; and in the last three 
decades of the century there was an abrupt decline in the number of 
sons of aristocrats and gentry seeking ordination, a sure sign that the 
game was up. The religious revival, the last England was to see, ante- 
dated the Victorian era by nearly a quarter of a century ; it was already 
levelling off by the 18405. Coinciding, as it did, with the enormous in- 
crease in wealth which marked the first industrial revolution, and at a 
time when Parliament would only grant public works relief for ecclesias- 
tical building, it left a spectacular legacy of 20,000 churches - next to 
the railways, the greatest physical memorial of the time. But by mid- 
century, it was becoming increasingly difficult to fill them. The Census 
Report on Public Worship, taken in March 1851, showed that little over 
7 million people out of nearly 18 million in England and Wales went 
to any kind of religious establishment on Sunday, and for the Anglicans 
the trend was much more sinister. They had already lost the struggle 
in the towns and cities, and were beginning to lose it in the villages. 
None of the other Churches benefited much from this erosion : the only 
real victor was indifference. The lifting of disabilities in the 18203 
allowed the inter-Church warfare to be carried out on roughly equal 
terms, and education was inevitably the chosen battlefield. The only 
effect was a further brake on the spread of education, for the difficulty of 
getting the various sects to agree to any proposal imposed delays up 
to and beyond the turn of the twentieth century. The attempt to evan- 
gelise children meant, therefore, that they got an inferior education, 
but it did not succeed in making them Christians. 

The bottom began to fall out of the Anglican world in the 18503. 
Charles LyelTs Principles of Geology (1830-33), vulgarised in Robert 
Chambers' Vestiges of Creation (1844), undermined the Biblical account 
of the origin of the planet. The ground was thus already prepared for 
Darwin's explosion, in the next decade. The outstanding ecclesiastical 
figure of the high Victorian period was Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford 
and, later, Winchester, whose life was punctuated by a series of lost 

* The Anglican clergy also exercised power directly. Though barred from sitting in the 
Commons, they controlled a homogeneous block of 25 seats in the Lords, and, until 1832, 
formed a significant proportion of the electorate, especially in certain seats, such as 
Oxford University, which carried particular kudos: it was the clergy who punished Peel 
in 1830 by ejecting him from Oxford. More important, they contributed more than half 
the JPs and could, when they chose, dominate Quarter Sessions and other organs of 
local government. For further details of clerical temporalities, see W.O, Chad wick: The 
Victorian Church, Vol i (London, 1966). 



rearguard actions, from which he emerged with increasing ridicule.* 
In 1860, when the Association for the Advancement of Science met in 
Oxford, WUberforce, already known by the devastating name of Soapy 
Sam, was ill-advised enough to challenge Darwinism in open debate 
with T. H. Huxley, an encounter which his biographer wisely glosses 
over. The same year, he attacked a harmless volume of advanced 
theology, Essays and Reviews, in the pages of the Quarterly (for which he 
was paid the handsome sum of 100 guineas). As a result, two of the 
contributors were persecuted for heresy, but the finding against them 
was overthrown by the Privy Council. A third contributor, Benjamin 
Jowett, was prosecuted in the Chancellor's Court of Oxford University, 
a piece of Laudism which merely evoked sneers; and the fact that 
Jowett's High Church enemies took their revenge by blocking his salary 
as Regius Professor of Greek merely covered the establishment as a 
whole in contempt. The truth was, the Protestant Church, unlike 
Catholicism, did not claim to embody a tradition and interpret it on the 
basis of authority; it was a documentary faith, and its documents, the 
Bible, were now seen to be losing their validity. The actions of a Wilber- 
force or a Pusey were essentially those of men in a panic. 

Pious Victorians did their best to accommodate the new knowledge 
within the framework of their assumptions. On reading The Descent 
of Man, Augustus Pitt-Rivers commented: 'The thought of our humble 
origins may be an incentive to industry and respectability/ The 
establishment stretched its increasingly elastic doctrines to embrace 
Darwin. When he died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey. 
Three years later his bust was unveiled in the Science Museum ; the 
Archbishop of Canterbury was present and, according to an observer, 
'gazed steadily for half an hour at the marble image of his victorious 
foe'. But the younger generation of intellectuals was opting out. 
John Morley, Leslie Stephen and Frederick Harrison, the historian, all 
lost their faith in the early 18503, and these were only three examples 
from a multitude. All three were cut off by their families, in conse- 
quence, and the experience left them shaken and distraught. Morley 
was one of many Victorians who feared that loss of faith, of a framework 
for life, would lead to melancholia and eventual madness. William Ward, 

* He made a sensational exit from life. In 1873, while riding with the Foreign Secretary, 
Lord Granville, he was flung from his horse and died instantly. The Victorian public was 
stunned by this arbitrary act of God against their leading ecclesiastic. Lord Shaftesbury 
noted : This event struck me like an earthquake. I was all but horror-struck . . . absolutely 
thunderstruck with amazement and terror.' Granville, however, assured the bishop's son 
that even the manner of his father's death was essentially prelatical: 'He must have 
turned a complete somersault; his feet were in the direction in which we were going, his 
arms straight by his side - the position was absolutely monumental.' - Lord Edmund 
Fitzmaurice: The Second Earl Granville (1905), ii, 270. 



of the Oxford Movement, was told by an eminent doctor: The chief 
causes of insanity in England are the pressures of the commercial system 
and the uncertainty of religious opinions/ The need for a framework 
explains the popularity of Auguste Comte and other systematic phil- 
osophers : both Morley and Harrison, for instance, became Positivists. 
It also accounts for the cult of George Eliot (which persists to this day) 
among intellectuals not normally accustomed to taking novels seriously. 
Though an agnostic, and unconventional enough to live with another 
woman's husband, she contrived to preach a moral law which made 
sense to the new, rationalist conscience. Frederick Myers described a 
conversation with her in which, 'taking as her text the words God, 
Immortality, Duty, she pronounced, with a terrible earnestness, how 
inconceivable was the first, how incredible the second, and yet how 
peremptory and absolute the third'. Not everyone could find such 
lines of escape from the dilemma. The problem deeply disturbed the 
early manhood of many born in the second half of the century. It is 
quite normal now for people to go through life without an ultimate 
object, but to the Victorians it was new and daunting. No wonder so 
many of them were such odd fish - Kitchener, Rosebery, Salisbury, 
Dilke, Curzon, Carson, Randolph Churchill, Fisher, Rhodes, Milner. 
In many cases certitude was replaced by a streak of violence, and the 
loss of God contributed to the afflatus of English imperialism. 

Of course, where the Church could repel boarders, it did so, and its 
chief victim was, needless to say, the weaker sex. But here it had all the 
instincts of society behind it. Women had fewer rights in Victorian 
than in Anglo-Saxon England. This is not surprising : in the inventory of 
the property-state, the wife was a valuable item. Until 1870 she had 
no property rights at all : her husband could steal her earnings for drink 
with legal impunity. Even the Married Women's Property Act, which 
caused an uproar, made little difference; it was heavily watered down 
in the Lords and, until 1882, did not cover most forms of property. 
No woman had the parliamentary vote, of course (in this, as in other, 
respects, Britain had fallen behind the most advanced countries by the 
end of the century), and the few entitled to vote in local government lost 
their right if they married. If marriage involved surrender, getting un- 
married was virtually impossible, at least for a woman. The Church 
was responsible both for the vast expense of divorce and the delay in 
extending it. The 1857 Act brought only marginal relief, and was 
deliberately weighted against women. A man could divorce his wife 
for adultery alone; the wife had to prove that her husband's adultery 
involved incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy or bestiality, or adultery plus 
legal cruelty. There were still only 8oo-odd divorces in 1901, as against 



more than 25,000 in the US the same year. The Church proved wholly 
reactionary over marriage reform because its moral theology was de- 
fective: it still could not make up its mind what a valid marriage was. 
That ancient conundrum from Leviticus, marriage to a deceased wife's 
sister (on which the English Reformation had hinged), was still un- 
resolved at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was, indeed, 
the hardy perennial of Victorian parliaments. In the years after 1850, 
bills to legalise it were defeated on 29 occasions, chiefly in the Lords, 
and one finally scraped through only in the wake of the Liberal land- 
slide in 1906.* 

Fear of the encroachment of women upon male preserves undoubtedly 
lay behind efforts to suppress the public manifestations of sex. It was 
one aspect of the resistance to reform, and antedated the Victorian era 
by several decades. The sexual patterns of the nineteenth-century 
English did not differ from those of any other age, as newspaper reports 
of divorce cases, and much other evidence, make clear. Victorian public 
men did not want to suppress vice. They did not choose, for instance, to 
clear the London streets of prostitutes, or even to shut the brothels : the 
chief motive of the smear campaign against Gladstone was to deter 
him from his efforts to close an 'introducing house' in St George's 

* In 1901, one such bill was killed in the Commons by Lord Hugh Cecil, the leader of 
the Tory roughs, by crawling through the division lobby on his hands and knees, thus 
ensuring that the vote could not be completed in time. Supporters of the bill protested 
that such behaviour was not cricket. He replied : 'I am not playing cricket but preserving 
the transcendental sacredness of the marriage tie.' But was he ? One of the greatest prac- 
tical failures of Christianity was its inability to work out a satisfactory canon law of 
marriage. This was a central weakness : it affected everyone, since the Church insisted on 
basing its social theory on the monogamous family as the basic unit of society. Few 
couples could have the absolute assurance that they were validly married ; and since the 
Church did not permit divorce, like other religions, an assault on the validity of the 
marriage was the only road to separation, and the confusion of canon law often made it a 
possible one. The higher the social class, the more likely it was that this course would be 
pursued; and where affairs of State, or inter-State relations, were involved, the uncer- 
tainty of the law posed a real threat to the unity of Christendom. It was thus no accident 
that Roman Christianity came to grief over Henry vm's marriage problems. The legal 
confusion remains to this day a weakness in Roman Catholicism, which finds itself 
fighting damaging and ultimately futile rearguard actions against civil divorce. What is 
extraordinary is that the Anglicans, too, failed to solve the problem. In 1898, the Bishop 
of London, Mandell Creighton, admitted in his report to the Committee of Convocation 
on Divorce: '. . . there is no point on which the Western Church displayed such incom- 
petence, for I can call it by no other name, than in its dealings with the question of 
marriage . . . the State had to interpose, because the Church had reduced matters to such 
extraordinary confusion ... it is a matter of fact that the Church found exceeding 
difficulty, and showed exceeding reluctance, in defining what marriage was . . . and how a 
valid marriage could be contracted/ Even today the Anglican clergy are still bitterly 
divided on whether divorced persons can, or should, be remarried in church. If the 
Anglican Church had produced a clear doctrine of marriage, the world would never have 
known civil divorce. Thus the Church has shown itself not the defender of the marriage 
tie, but its enemy. 



Road catering exclusively for MPs and peers. The Victorian house-party 
was geared to adultery, which was taken for granted provided it did not 
end in public scandal. But 'sex' like democracy, socialism, atheism, 
pacifism and equality, was a subversive word. It raised questions about 
society too fraught with peril to permit public debate. Thus the Vic- 
torians used a double vocabulary, as the English stage had learned 
to do since the early seventeenth century.* And sexual reform, identi- 
fied with vice, was subjected to the familiar English battering of guilt 
by foreign association. When Francis Place advocated birth-control in 
the 18203, a magazine was published to oppose the campaign : it was 
called the Bulldog. France, as usual, was cast in the role of villain. 
Rubber contraceptives were called French letters, though they first, in 
fact, came from America. Sir Charles Dilke, celebrated for his en- 
cyclopaedic knowledge of foreign affairs, and his links with French 
republicans, got the xenophobic works during the Crawford divorce 
case. Mrs Crawford claimed 'he taught me every French vice', and her 
counsel, Henry Matthews, thundered: 'He was charged with having 
done with an English lady what any man of proper feeling would shrink 
from doing with a prostitute in a French brothel/ (In point of fact, the 
English ruling class, led by the Prince of Wales, were the best customers 
of the famous establishments in the Rue de Provence. One of them, 
for the benefit of English travellers, included a mock-up of a wagon-lit, 
mounted on machinery to simulate motion, and with a canvas panorama 
of the chateaux of the Loire rolling past the windows.) One might argue 
that the public silence the Victorians maintained on the subject of 
permitted sex, and the public excoriation of vice, sprang not least from 
the belief of the English that they were a race apart, maintaining them- 
selves in splendid isolation from the contaminations of the Continent, 
and purifying their energies for the dedicated task of running a world 
empire. Sex had destroyed Rome; it should not destroy Britain. Be- 
neath the public fagade, however, all the evidence shows that the Eng- 
lish tended to treat sex much less seriously, as indeed a prime subject 
for laughter. The lengthy newspaper accounts of Victorian divorce 
actions (which shocked Queen Victoria so much that she complained to 
the Lord Chancellor) were punctuated with the phrase 'laughter in 

* An act of 1606 (3 James r, Chapter 21) prohibited profane language in public plays: 
substitutions for words like zounds can be detected in the Shakespeare folio of 1623. The 
dual system persisted until 1968, when theatre censorship finally collapsed. Puritanism 
is the parent of linguistic invention, and the Victorians used an illicit sexual vocabulary 
which has never been equalled in size and vividness. Among synonyms for whore were : 
academician, biddy, bobtail, bunter, bung-up, cat, cock-chafer, frow, flymy, pave- 
thumper, trooper and blowen ; brothels were variously referred to as academies, corinths, 
peggers or pegging-cribs, swells'-kens and convents. See Ronald Pearsall: The Worm in 
the Bud -the World of Victorian Sexuality (London, 1969), Chapter 8. 



court'. And, within the limits of certain conventions, the music halls, 
the Victorian equivalent of television, showed a consistently ribald 
approach to sex. The leading practitioner of comic innuendo was the 
Great MacDermott, who brought the houses down with his ditty 
'Jeremiah, Blow the Fire 7 . He was also, it should be noted, the man who 
made famous 'We Don't Want to Fight, but by Jingo if we Do*. 

The theme of this section has been the agonising slowness with which 
the English were induced to reform and improve their society, and the 
manner in which changes, when they came at last, often served chiefly 
to reinforce the existing structure. Certainly, the pace of improvement - 
in an age dedicated to improvement - must have seemed almost un- 
endurable to the enlightened. Take the comparatively small but sig- 
nificant matter of the compulsory payment of church rates, an indefen- 
sible anomaly which rightly enraged not only progressives but most 
apolitical men and women. A test-case was brought in Braintree. It was 
fought over 16 years, before 28 judges and in eight courts, four deciding 
in favour, and four against, until, in 1853, the House of Lords gave a 
complex judgment which, in effect, made it extremely difficult to 
enforce payment ; but not until 15 years later were compulsory church 
rates abolished by statute. In some cases the ancient citadels of 
horror withstood all attacks. In 1845, Punch, appalled by the public 
execution of a woman, and by the unctuous reverence with which 
prison chaplains gave a Christian blessing to the act of judicial murder, 
gave a confident assurance: 'Still, have we this comfort : whether the 
men of God assist the goodly work or no, the gallows is doomed, is 
crumbling, and must down - overthrown by no greater instruments than 
a few goosequills.' Alas, even the public spectacles continued for 
another generation, and hanging was not finally abolished until 1965, 
120 years later. English reformers, too, had the mortification of seeing 
other countries, once derided for their social backwardness, catch up and 
overtake Britain. In 1884 the Germans got accident insurance, and 
State insurance against sickness, followed five years later by old-age 
pensions. In 1905, before even the Liberals had accepted the principle of 
State welfare, nearly 19 million German workers were insured against 
accident, 12 million against sickness, and 14 million against old age and 

All the same, we must not underestimate the magnitude of the Eng- 
lish achievement during this remarkable century. If some countries 
were beginning to progress more rapidly in certain directions, it was the 
English, for the first time in history, who contrived to harness the idea 



of progress to the immense engine of the popular consensus. Man had 
been martyred through the ages; now he was free, if he chose to use 
his freedom. The historian Henry Thomas Buckle, in many ways 
the Victorian archetype,* summed up his History of Civilisation in a 
triumphant paean of Baconian optimism: 

The powers of man, so far as experience or analogy can guide us, are 
unlimited; nor are we possessed of any evidence which authorises us to assign 
even an imaginary boundary at which the human intellect will, of necessity, 
be brought to stand. 

Later Victorians, more sophisticated and critical, more disillusioned too, 
found these sentiments crude. It was said that Buckle saw history as 'a 
sort of vast anti-Corn Laws agitation, with the substitution of knowledge 
for cheap bread' ; that he reduced progress to an infantile ditty: 

I believe that all the gasses 
Have the power to raise the masses. 

Writing of the 18503, Leslie Stephen laughed at an age 'when people 
held that the Devil had finally committed suicide upon seeing the Great 
Exhibition, having had things pretty much his own way until Luther 
threw the inkstand in his face*. Of course Buckle's optimism was crude: 
but all truth emerges first in crude forms. History teaches that the 
terrible predicament of mankind can never be improved by resigna- 
tion, and that the self-confidence of the species is the pre-condition of 
all progress. In the nineteenth century, the English made a great act of 
faith in the future, and communicated it to many peoples : that faith 
has been shaken but not destroyed, and it has permitted the human race 
to survive calamities which to the Victorians would have been unimag- 

Moreover, during this period, the English achieved their maturity 
as a people. They learned to smile at the darkness, and to respect the 
resources of the intellect. For the first time, they conquered the violence 
in their natures decisively, and for good. The chaotic and frightening 
society of the 18305, which Disraeli described in Sybil, had vanished 
20 years later; by then it must have seemed as forgotten as the Lanca- 
shire of The Road to Wigan Pier seems to us today. Late- Victorian 
England was profoundly shocked when a crowd of unemployed smashed 
London windows in 1886, though no one was killed or even seriously 
hurt. By then the tradition of non-violence had already been firmly 
established, regarded indeed as immemorial, taken for granted. The 

* Including the fact that he secretly kept a mistress, Mrs Faunch. See Giles St Aubyn : 
A Victorian Eminence (London, 1958). 



fact that for the first three decades of the century England had often 
been on the brink of bloody revolution, and that the mob was then the 
prime instrument of political change, was already seen as part of the 
debris of history, as remote as the Wars of the Roses.* By the i88os, 
a marriage had taken place between the political nation, and the nation 
as a whole - an imperfect marriage, to be sure, marked by bickering 
and occasional threats of divorce - but strong enough to permit the 
dialogue of change to be conducted through legal and constitutional 
forms. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the experience had been very 
different. The United States had fought a merciless and prolonged 
civil war, which raised as many problems as it solved, indeed institu- 
tionalised its own traditions of violence; France had undergone three 
revolutions in the vain quest for stability; Germany was moving towards 
military dictatorship, and Russia was preparing to perpetuate a bestial 
autocracy in the name of a mythical people. The English, as we have 
seen, paid a high price for domestic peace. But in terms of human 
happiness who can say that the purchase was not a shrewd one? 

The honest broker in this bargain, the celebrant at the marriage be- 
tween the two nations, was Mr William Ewart Gladstone. The story of 
this extraordinary man's political pilgrimage, of his transformation 
from the youth Macaulay called 'the rising hope of the stern, unbending 
Tories' to the old democratic eagle whom the world acknowledged as 
'the people's William', is essentially the story of how political maturity 
was reached. The majestic debate in his own mind both instructed and 
echoed the debate in the nation; like all great politicians, he both led 
and followed. Now other men had done this, notably Peel and even, 
to some extent, Palmerston. What made Gladstone unique was the 
triple combination of a conservative temperament, a radical intellect 
and an insatiable conscience. The conscience quested, the intellect 
resolved, the temperament harnessed it to tradition. Thus what was 
in fact the perpetual motion of the times seemed as stable as the 
earth spinning on its axis. The development of Gladstone's political 

* In September 1838, at Wymondham in Norfolk, an incident occurred which might 
have figured in The Paston Letters. Following a lawsuit over the possession of Stanfield 
Hall, one of the claimants, a Mr Lamer, took possession of the hall by force with an army 
of 80 followers, wearing laurel leaves in their hats by way of livery. They were eventually 
dislodged by the 4th Dragoon Guards. See Owen Chad wick: A Victorian Miniature 
(London, 1960). The inability of the authorities to enforce the law in remote parts, even 
in the 18405, is the theme of R.D. Blackmore's novel, Christowell, set on Dartmoor. But 
the coming of the railways and the electric telegraph made civil disorder increasingly 
easy to suppress, or anticipate. Modern technology is the enemy of the mob : today, in 
advanced countries, successful revolution is impossible without the intervention or ac- 
quiescence of the armed forces; and even in backward states it is becoming vastly more 


personality could not have been more revolutionary and complete ; yet 
it is hard to point to any particular episode which involved a qualitative 
change in his views ; the process had the inevitability of gradualness. As a 
young man his instinct was to be a churchman (as Cardinal Manning's 
was to be a politician) and for many years he saw public life more in 
ecclesiastical than in political terms. In October 1832 he breakfasted 
with his patron, the Duke of Newcastle, who had offered him a safe seat, 
and the conversation he recorded shows what a long way the young man 
was to travel : 

D. of N : I confess I have a great notion of the horrors of enthusiasm. 
W.E.G: Your Grace, I think we must expect to see enthusiasm in the present 
day, for where, after a long period of prosperity and ease, men's minds are 
disturbed ... it naturally happens that opinion starts forth in every 
variety of form which it can possibly assume. 
D. of N : Yes, it is so. There can be no doubt that, if we desert God as a 

nation, he will desert us. 

W.E.G: Yes, my Lord. And we seem to be approaching a period in which one 
expects events so awful that the tongue fears to utter them. ... All seems 
to be in preparation for the grand struggle between the principles of good 
and evil. The way to this seems to be in preparation for the approaching 
downfall of the Papacy. 

D. of N: Yes, Popery is attempting to rally its forces, but I think only pre- 
paratory to its utter defeat and destruction. 

W.E.G : The Roman Catholic religion is so bad, and yet the prospect after its 
overthrow is so very dreary, that one scarcely knows whether to wish for 
its continuance, or destruction. 
D. of N. : The question as to what is to succeed is full of interest beyond 


W.E.G: I fear that infidelity must succeed - for a time at least. 
D. of N: I think there can be little doubt that we ought to wish for its 


W.E.G: It appears to me that those are right who think there are great evils 
in the state of society - but wrong when they think them so superficial that 
they can be cured by legislation. 

D. of N: Yes, all depends upon individuals; the matter cannot be reached by 
Act of Parliament. 

Many light-years of intellectual experience later, Gladstone was to 
believe, more strongly perhaps than any other statesman, that political 
action was itself capable of becoming a moral force, and that the 
parliamentary statute was the supreme instrument of public elevation. 
For a man to set his sights so high was, of course, to invite failure; and 
Gladstone's life was a failure in terms of his stupendous objectives. 
All the same, the statute became in his hands a formidable weapon; 



there is no parallel to his record of achievement in English history. 
More important, he discovered that democracy is not a monster to be 
contained, still less excluded, but a moral force to be unleashed. He 
learned to trust the people; he sought to teach the lesson to others, 
not always successfully. In one sense this became his considered view 
of Christianity. Give every man his freedom, and God's light will shine 
in that man's mind, however humble he may be, as clearly as in the 
mind of a man born to rule; of course he may reject the light, but the 
exercise of his free will cannot be denied without denying the potency 
of God; and experience increasingly shows that in the majority the 
light will be admitted. This Christian theory of democracy was, in 
essence, Pelagianism taken to its tdtimate conclusion; and thus, as the 
English finally achieved political maturity, we can see in their evolution 
an admirable continuity and symmetry. Gladstone had the rare 
capacity to admit error without losing faith in his judgment. His 
abandonment of the Elitist view of politics left his confidence not 
merely undiminished but increased: he saw the people as a source of 
strength. What particularly struck him was the behaviour of the Lan- 
cashire cotton operatives during the American Civil War : not merely did 
they rej ect the apparent self-interest which dictated support of the South, 
but they believed (unlike Gladstone) that the North would win, and 
events confirmed their prescience as well as their rectitude. It was, he 
said, 'a great lesson to us all, to teach us that in those little tutored 
but reflective minds . . . opinions and sentiments gradually form them- 
selves . . . which are found to be deep-seated, mature and ineradicable'. 
From this episode sprang the germ of the Midlothian campaign, the 
conviction that the people could be brought right into the centre of 
the public stage and express themselves as a moral chorus to which 
the world would listen; and from this point it was but a short 
further step to grasp the principle of self-determination, and to seek 
to apply it to the Irish people. So, in an age of rising empires, 
not least their own, the English gave birth to the idea of a liberated 

Yet there is a melancholy coda to this story. To his theory of Christian 
democracy, Gladstone added a final qualification. Right at the end of 
his life, he wrote a testament to the young heir who would inherit the 
Hawarden estate, on which he had lavished so much care and anxiety, 
and so many copious draughts from the bottomless well of his con- 
science. The document is not always clear; Gladstone had many of the 
mental habits of the schoolman, and he was often least intelligible when 
he was most in earnest. One passage, on the social power of the landed 
estate, reads : 



The influence attaching to [properties] grows in a larger proportion than 
mere extent, and establishes a natural leadership, based upon free assent, 
which is of especial value at a period when the majority are, in theory, inves- 
ted with a supremacy of political power which, nevertheless, through the 
necessities of our human nature, is always in danger of slipping through their 

Now what Gladstone meant, I believe, is this. Englishmen born to 
wealth or privileges have a special duty to society, to supply the de- 
fects of a mass-democracy which arise from the political consequences 
of inequalities which no human wisdom can finally eliminate. The 
English people will, from time to time, be deceived, and be their own 
"worst enemies, for they will fail to exploit the potentialities of the 
power given to them. An elite is needed, not to govern, but to enable 
the people to govern themselves. These last words of Gladstone, written 
in June 1897, provide an important clue to the history of the English 
in our own times. They suggest one way in which the splendours of 
progress can be made to outweigh the miseries. But first we must 
examine how the miseries overcame the English. 



Hubris and Nemesis 


IN 1870 England was universally regarded as the strongest and 
richest nation on earth, indeed in human history. The English 
aroused little affection. In general, they were cordially disliked; 
and Lord Palmerston, who had died five years before, had taken this 
for granted: as he frequently told his ambassadors, it was only to be 
expected that a wealthy, fortunate and successful country like England 
should arouse envy and criticism; so long as such feelings were confined 
to words, and tempered by respect, or if necessary fear, there was no 
cause for concern. England operated from motives of self-interest, 
which happened to coincide (by the disposition of a benign providence) 
with the long-term interests of the civilised world, in fact of the entire 
human community. England was moving in the direction of progress, 
and pulling the world along in her wake. England did not need nation- 
states as allies, because her true allies were the forces of enlightenment, 
moral, economic and constitutional; by their very nature they were 
ubiquitous, permanent and immutable. The English had grasped the 
salient truth that international morality and the pursuit of wealth were 
not merely compatible but, in a sense, identical: as Locke had put it, 
Virtue is now visibly the most enriching purchase, and by much the 
best bargain'. This the English had discovered for themselves, and were 
now teaching the world. God was the Great Book-keeper, the Ultimate 
Accountant, the Chairman of the world liberal economy, and His 
instruments were free trade and the Royal Navy. 

Exactly a hundred years later, there is absolutely nothing left of 
this vision. England is now the weakest, and in many respects the poorest, 
of the industrial nations. The signposts to the future no longer point 
the way she is travelling ; on the contrary. The English are still criticised, 
not least by themselves; but the tone is no longer envious or indignant, 
but rather impatient and admonitory. Fear has yielded to indifference, 
respect to pity, and admiration to contempt. The arrogance of the Eng- 
lish has gone, and with it their self-confidence. The world suddenly 
seems a vast and alien place, and the English to occupy a very tiny portion 
of it. The God that Palmerston worshipped is revealed as an old wooden 
idol, blind and impotent. English prayers fall on deaf ears, and the 
cheering crowds turn elsewhere. Such historical transformations have 
occurred before, but never with such speed and decision - and never, 
certainly, to the English. The common fate of nations appears to them a 



unique and devastating blow of providential injustice, unforeseen, 
undeserved, irrational and, in the deepest sense, immoral. What went 
wrong? How did it happen? Who is to blame? When did progress 
cease to move at an English rhythm ? The answer is really very simple. 
It is the old story of hubris and nemesis. 

On 8 February 1870 Oxford's first, and newly appointed, Professor 
of Fine Art gave his inaugural lecture. John Ruskin was then 51, his 
mind barely clouded by approaching madness, at the height of his 
enormous powers, a national celebrity. His books sold in tens of thous- 
ands, his prose was universally admired and frequently emulated. As a 
polymath he was without a rival, even in an age of polymaths ; and many 
people thought he was the greatest man alive. So many, indeed, that the 
theatre of the Oxford Museum, where he was due to lecture, was 
filled to capacity over an hour before the appointed time, with hundreds 
outside clamouring to get in; and the chairman, Sir Henry Acland, 
decided to adjourn to the Sheldonian, where there was more room. 
Through the icy streets of Oxford, the bizarre and spiky figure of 
Ruskin, like the Pied Piper, led the eager and academic mob. What he 
eventually had to say, as it happened, was well worth hearing. It struck 
a new note for the times, though the theme was an ancient and (to 
English ears) a tempting one. Well might Ruskin complain, afterwards: 
'My University friends came to me, with grave faces, to remonstrate 
against irrelevant and Utopian topics of that nature being introduced 
in lectures on art/ For Ruskin seemed chiefly concerned not with art 
in an academic guise, or in any guise at all, but with a call to racial 

There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to 
be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of 
the best northern blood. We . . . still have the firmness to govern and the grace 
to obey. . . . Will you youths of England make your country again a royal 
throne of kings, a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of 
peace; mistress of learning and of the Arts? . . . This is what England must 
either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and far as she is able, 
formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every fruitful piece 
of waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists 
that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to 
be to advance the power of England by land and sea ... 

It is always a serious matter when pundits, scholars and academics 
feel inspired to stray outside their chosen disciplines and lend their 
authority to vast, portentous and mystic pronouncements about the 
human race - and still more about any particular race. Oxford dons 



had hitherto bent their energies to resisting the spread of education, 
and their influence, though almost wholly bad, had at least been merely 
negative. Ruskin began a new fashion, and opened the era of the mad 
professor. It is true that he had a John the Baptist: the gentle and re- 
putedly saintly John Henry Newman. In the 18405, Newman had 
lectured to the students of Dublin on The Idea of a University', and 
had told them, among other things, that the chief virtue of the English 
public schools was their ability to breed 

. . . heroes and statesmen, literary men and philosophers, men conspicuous 
for great natural virtues, for habits of business, for knowledge of life, for 
practical judgment, for cultivated tastes, for accomplishments, who have 
made England what it is - able to subdue the earth. 

Within a few years, the Great Famine had struck Ireland, and the 
'heroes and statesmen', at least in Irish eyes, had not been conspicuous 
for 'practical judgment', had indeed confessed their inability or un- 
willingness to do anything to mitigate the greatest natural catastrophe 
in Ireland's history. But since then Darwin's ideas had been bandied 
around for a whole generation, had been absorbed, vulgarised and per- 
verted, and seemed to many Englishmen to give a new lease to the con- 
cept of a chosen race. The race, their own, owed its appointment with 
destiny not to spurious historical documents, or the supposed activities 
of first-century apostles, but to the processes of natural selection which 
allowed only the fittest to survive and rule: the English had been 
chosen not by God but by nature herself, as could be demonstrated 
by irrefutable scientific theory. Of course Darwin had said nothing 
of the kind; he had always been careful to insist that natural pro- 
gression was morally neutral. But the 'survival of the fittest' seemed to 
describe so accurately the facts of English history, and the dominant 
position of the English race, that English pundits naturally assumed 
that the laws of science endorsed England's global policy. It was, at any 
rate, an appealing idea to clever young men, and Ruskin had many 
enthusiastic followers. Convinced that the moulding of the chosen race 
demanded physical as well as intellectual discipline, Ruskin set his 
students to work digging roads, under the guidance of his gardener, 
Downs. Among those who toiled away was Alfred Milner; and another 
disciple, Cecil Rhodes, failed to take part only because of his weak 
health. Thus the age of imperialism was born in the home of lost causes. 

It is important to realise, if we are to understand the history of the 
English in the last hundred years, that this new imperialist concept - 



born in Oxford, bred in Westminster and then shipped to the colonies - 
was in all essentials alien to the spirit in which England's overseas 
territories had been acquired and administered. The English of the 
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had been missionaries as well as 
traders, concerned to liberate the natives from the darkness of heathen- 
ism, or still more of Spanish Catholicism, as well as to win raw materials 
and markets. If this current had been submerged in the vast expansion 
of the eighteenth century, the strident materialism of an international 
trading empire, with its vile and profitable instrument of slavery, it 
still flowed beneath the surface. And, in the closing decades of the eight- 
eenth century, idealism became once more a governing motive in the 
activities of the English across the oceans. It is significant that, at the 
time of the Act of Union with Ireland, George in, no less, firmly de- 
clined to assume the title of Emperor, on the grounds, according to 
Canning's secretary, A. G. Stapleton, that 'he felt that his true dignity 
consisted in his being known to Europe and the world by the appropriate 
and undisputed style belonging to the British crown'. The lessons of 
the American revolt had been learned. The English began to see their 
rule as essentially a transitional phase, in which they were to act as 
trustees rather than freeholders. Burke saw the Empire as one of ideas 
rather than military occupation : 'As long as you have the wisdom to 
keep . . . this country as the sanctuary of liberty, wherever men worship 
freedom they will turn their faces towards you/ The English taught in 
many ways, notably through religion and commerce, but no one 
doubted that the pupils would eventually emerge from tutelage, and 
that the bonds of mutual interest would thereby be stronger, because 

The process was confused because many territories were acquired in a 
haphazard manner, as a result of disputes which were purely European in 
origin. But certain strong and ubiquitous principles emerged. What lay 
at the heart of the long debates on Warren Hastings was the growing con- 
viction that the Indian sub-continent could not be ruled through the 
corrupt methods which English governors had acquired from Indian prin- 
ces. Administration by bribery was no longer acceptable in England; it 
could not be practised elsewhere. Hastings was not a scoundrel: he was 
an anachronism, using devices no longer endorsed by English parlia- 
mentary and public opinion. Inevitably, as the Walpolean system 
retreated, 'efficiency' rushed in to fill the vacuum. The interests of the 
overwhelming majority, the natives, must be paramount. By Waterloo, 
England was responsible directly for 87 million Indians: indirectly for 
43 million more. When Lord William Bentinck went out as Governor- 
General in 1828, he wrote to Bentham: 'I shall govern in name, but it 



will be you who will govern in fact/ Thus India was rapidly exposed to 
western ideas, and to honest, systematic and relentless methods of 
government. On the basis of Macaulay's majestic minute on Indian 
education, Bentinck declared in 1835 that 'the content of higher 
education should be western learning, including science, and that the 
language of instruction should be English'. The decision was mom- 
entous. It pushed Indian history, and indeed the history of most of 
Asia, and later of Africa, in a radically new direction: hundreds of 
millions of people were to follow, economically, politically, socially and 
technologically in the path of the West. With the ideas came machines : 
less than half a generation separated the railway age in India from its 
climax in England, and the time-gap narrowed with each fresh wave of 
invention. The strains of this forced development of an ancient civilisa- 
tion were enormous. The Mutiny of 1857 was not a nationalist revolt 
against alien rule, which was largely beneficent, and at all events 
minimal. It was a protest by the conservative forces in Indian society 
against unrestricted penetration by the western way of life. It led to 
many readjustments in English administration, notably a curbing of 
the pace of westernisation by the deliberate reinforcement of traditional 
Indian institutions. But there was no immediate revision of the ultimate 
object. Macaulay predicted that the moment when the Indians, 'having 
become instructed in European knowledge . . . demand European in- 
stitutions' would be 'the proudest day in English history'. This remained 
the common supposition until the imperial age. 

The end of the Napoleonic wars found England the residuary legatee 
of the crumbling European empires. The English were almost alone 
on a world stage, of which the navy was the custodian. They did not 
seek to exploit this situation in any imperialist sense, but to apply to 
the entire planet the principles of moral improvement and self-better- 
ment which were already being preached in their homeland. If anything, 
the English ruling class was notably more liberal overseas than in the 
British Isles. The Quebec Act of 1774 gave official status to Roman 
Catholicism and French civil law, ending disabilities which British and 
Irish Catholics had to endure for another half-century. The loyalist 
refugees from the United States who settled in Upper Canada did not 
have to wait long for a measure of self-government: both Canadas 
received model constitutions in 1791. What was appropriate for Euro- 
pean settlers could not ultimately be denied to anyone else. The English 
emphatically rejected Aristotle's notion that 'many men are born ig- 
norant and slavish and therefore ought to be slaves'. Two years before 
the French Revolution, the English evangelicals founded the Society 
for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the year the Canadas got their 



constitutions it sponsored a settlement for freed slaves in Sierra Leone. 
The influence of Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect penetrated the 
Colonial Office, now emerging as a great department of State. It was the 
creation of two earnest and pious gentlemen, Lord Bathurst and his 
under-secretary, Henry Goulburn; but its real driving force was 
Wilberforce's brother-in-law, James Stephen, who remained the per- 
manent under-secretary until 1847. He did not seek to administer, but 
to improve. Enormously hard-working, he had the faults of a doctrin- 
aire and a prig; but the virtues, also, of a crusader and a reformer, 
inspired by a profound sense of moral obligation to the subject races. 
He did not ask: 'What can the natives do for us?' but 'What can the 
English do for the natives?' 

Well, what could they do? There were two rival theories, usually 
advanced by men who shared a common Biblical inspiration. At the 
end of the nineteenth century, in The Man of Destiny, Shaw was to 
sneer at the hypocrisy with which the Englishman acquired his Empire: 
'When he wants a new market for his adulterated Manchester goods, 
he sends a missionary to teach the natives the Gospel of Peace/ But 
he was writing in the experience of the new, brutal and cynical im- 
perialism. A hundred years earlier, English missioners and colonists 
were inspired by wholly different motives, whose very altruism pro- 
duced tremendous clashes. The four great overseas missionary societies, 
founded around 1800, repudiated any connection with government: 
the secular arm, they feared, would bring oppression and pollution, 
whereas they aimed solely to elevate the natives: 

Must we not endeavour to raise these wretched beings out of their present 
miserable condition, and above aU, to communicate to them those blessed 
truths, which would not only improve their understandings and elevate their 
minds, but would, in ten thousand ways, promote their temporal well-being, 
and point out to them a sure path to everlasting happiness ? 

In New Zealand, in particular, the Church Missionary Society tried 
hard to prevent any form of colonisation, as fatal to its objects: 

Only let New Zealand be spared from colonisation and the Mission have its 
free and unrestricted course for half a century or more, and the great political 
moral problem will be solved - of a people passing from a barbarous to a 
civilised state, through the agency of Europeans, with the complete preser- 
vation of the Aboriginal race, and of their natural independence and sover- 

But the colonisers were equally earnest in their anxiety to promote 
moral welfare by practical means. Moreover, they brought into the 
equation the additional factor of the British and Irish poor, living on 



islands universally held to be overcrowded and menaced by Malthusian 
catastrophe. What of the felons ? Was it not better, instead of hanging 
them, to offer them a chance of hard-working repentance in territories 
which were virtually empty? At any rate, Lord Sydney, a well-meaning 
Home Secretary, began the process in Australia, in 1786, thus anticipat- 
ing the missionaries by a decade ; and before the system was ended in 
1868, nearly 200,000 had been transported, mostly with success. As 
for the natives, would not their progress to civilisation be hastened by 
the example and assistance of industrious white folk, released from un- 
employment in the cities, and from subsistence living in the exhausted 
fields of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, to employ their frustrated 
energies in creating new worlds? Could not the hand of God be seen 
in bringing together these two compatible objects? With hindsight, we 
can see the terrible fallacy. But, apart from the missionaries, every 
dedicated improver in early nineteenth-century England believed in 
the merits of colonisation. The flow of immigrants began after 1815, 
and from 1830 it was subsidised. Behind the movement, directed by the 
National Colonisation Society, were upright, God-fearing men like 
Charles Buller and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who believed whole- 
heartedly that colonisation was the road to freedom, to the enlargement 
of the human spirit. White men would raise their stature overseas, 
and carry the natives with them. It was no accident that Buller and 
Wakefield went with Lord Durham to Canada, in the aftermath of the 
Canadian revolt, and helped to write the Durham Report of 1838. 
With all its contemporary limitations, the Report was the blueprint 
for a future community of self-governing dominions, and by the end of 
the 18603 not only Canada, but Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland 
and the South African territories were for all practical purposes ad- 
ministering themselves: the change was marked by the withdrawal of 
English troops, and noted at Westminster with almost universal satis- 

Indeed, it was possible, at that time, to foresee the culmination of the 
Empire in universal self-government not in a remote future, but in a 
matter of decades. The Empire was cultural, not military. Captain 
Cook's first expedition in 1768 had been essentially a scientific venture, 
organised and supported by the Royal Society, to bring the Pacific and 
the South Seas into the orbit of knowledge: the process continued for a 
century, with generations of naval officers and scientists exploring and 
mapping the entire Indian and Pacific oceans. In the 18408 the drive 
was extended inland, to Africa: but the motive was consistent with the 
aims of what was fundamentally a pacific and humanitarian Empire. 
English army and naval officers tended to know more about cartography 



than firepower. The naval and trading stations were acquired and 
garrisoned: Trincomalee (1786), Mauritius (1810); Singapore (1819), 
Aden (1839), Hong Kong (1842); but they provided merely a minimal 
framework of security within which, it was assumed, commerce, 
education and religion could be safely left to transform backward and 
barbarous societies into progressive and free ones. The thinking may 
have been naive; it was certainly not hypocritical. 

Indeed, one can detect definite signs of impatience in London that the 
maturing process of empire was not proceeding more rapidly. Adam 
Smith, not Chatham, was the guiding spirit. Colonies had originally 
been acquired, in part at least, to embody mercantilist principles, to 
provide exclusive access to raw materials, and exclusive markets for 
English exports. The industrial revolution made nonsense of mercan- 
tilism, at least from the point of view of the English, and once the French 
wars were over, the old system was scrapped, in favour of free trade, 
with remarkably little argument. Huskisson dealt the fatal blow in 
1825, and in the Forties and the Fifties free trade was extended to the 
whole Empire. This being the case, and with ultimate independence 
for all within sight, there seemed no reason to suppose that the Empire 
should have any formal future at all; informal arrangements based on 
mutual commercial interest, and common culture, were both more 
durable and less expensive. Those wretched colonies/ said Disraeli 
in 1852, 'will all be independent in a few years and are a millstone 
round our necks/ This was an acrimonious, perhaps extreme, example 
of what was becoming the prevailing mood. Lord Derby rejected 
Australian demands to annex Pacific islands; he asked an Australian 
delegation 'whether they did not want another planet all to themselves'. 
When, indeed, the navy became active in the Pacific in 1872, its object 
was to stop the Australians running the Kanaka labour trade, rightly 
regarded as a form of slavery. In South Africa, the English willingly 
allowed the Boers to separate themselves from British rule, and con- 
fined their military activities chiefly to defensive actions against the 
Kaffir confederations, pushing down from the north. In 1872, Mr Glad- 
stone thought it expedient to accelerate the winding-up process of 
empire. The year before, reflecting the received opinion of the age, 
Bismarck had pronounced: 'Colonies are of no more use to us than a fur 
to a Polish count with no shirt/ What was the point of empire? J. S. 
Mill, in writing Considerations of Representative Government, approached 
the question with some diffidence. He finally concluded that there was 
a point, thereby adumbrating the modern theory of the Commonwealth, 
in phrases which have become the clichfe of Commonwealth Prime 
Ministers' conferences: 



There are strong reasons for maintaining the present slight bond of con- 
nection It is a step, so far as it goes, towards universal peace and generally 

friendly cooperation between nations. It renders war impossible among a 
large number of otherwise independent communities ... it has the advantage 
... of adding to the moral influence and weight in the councils of the world, 
of the Power which, of all in existence, best understands liberty. 

It is astonishing to reflect that these words were published exactly 99 
years before Harold Macmillan found it necessary to deliver his 'winds of 
change' speech. In the 18605, the English seemed to have reached the 
last chapter of the colonial epoch, and were about to close the book with 
satisfaction and the consciousness of duty done. How was it that the 
book was rudely reopened, and new, bloody and catastrophic chapters 
written - chapters catastrophic not merely for the English, but for the 
entire world? 

We cannot simply blame the ideas-men, like Ruskin. Ideas, after all, are 
impotent unless they both reflect and reinforce physical events. But 
we cannot entirely exonerate Ruskin, either. A scholar must give some 
cautionary thought to the probable use, or misuse, of his ideas by 
desperate and unscrupulous men of action. Ruskin's lectures were 
promptly published and widely circulated. One copy certainly fell into 
the hands of Benjamin Disraeli. In 1872 he was an ageing and frustrated 
politician, coming to the end of a very long road without having once 
glimpsed the promised land of power in all its plenitude. The great 
parliamentary majority still eluded him. Brief and tantalising spells of 
office had invariably deposited him back on the opposition benches. The 
huge extension of the suffrage which he had himself carried in 1867 had 
brought advantage only to the Liberals. He was in the market for any 
idea, any issue, which might propel the new voters in a Tory direction. 
Now Disraeli was not a Darwinian; on the contrary, he was 'on the side 
of the angels'. But Ruskin's transmutation of Darwinian concepts 
was quite another matter. The voters did not like to be told they were 
descended from apes. But they might welcome the news that they were 
in process of becoming gods. At any rate, Disraeli decided to give it a 
try, and at the Crystal Palace on 24 June he electrified a great congre- 
gation by scrapping all his previous views on the colonies and unveiling 
a new vision of empire. 

Why, he asked, had he promoted the 1867 Reform Act ? Because that 
act had been based on his belief that the working classes were proud of 
belonging to a great, imperial country, and wished to maintain its 
Empire. For 40 years the Liberals had sought 'to effect the disintegra- 
tion of the empire of England'. Of course, he, like everyone else, 



supported self-government. But the donation of such 'ought to have been 
accompanied by an imperial tariff', by a 'military code for the defence 
of the colonies', by provision for aid from the colonies for the mother 
country, and 'by the institution of some representative council in the 
metropolis'. Self-government, yes; but only 'as part of a great policy 
of imperial consolidation'. But the tragedy was that the Liberals had 
viewed 'everything in a financial aspect, and totally passing by those 
moral and political considerations which make nations great, and by the 
influence of which alone men are distinguished from animals'. He then 
enunciated a new doctrine of secular racialism: 

The issue is not a mean one. It is whether you will be content to be a com- 
fortable England, modelled and moulded on Continental principles and 
meeting in due course an inevitable fate, or whether you will be a great 
country, an Imperial country, a country where your sons, when they rise, 
rise to paramount positions, and obtain not merely the esteem of their coun- 
trymen, but command the respect of the world. 

The consequences of this speech were curious. There is no evidence 
that Disraeli's new line had any particular effect on the 1874 election, 
which the Liberals lost for a variety of other reasons. Nor did Disraeli, 
once in office, show any inclination to apply his doctrines in a systematic 
manner. Indeed, he was incapable of system. He was old and tired by 
the time he found himself in power with a coherent majority. The legis- 
lative business of his government was inspired and carried through by 
other men, notably Richard Cross. Disraeli, savaged by gout, and weak- 
ened still more by the loss of his wife, could still occasionally concentrate 
his brilliant intellect on particular issues which captured his imagination; 
but to carry through a conscious and long-sighted policy of imperialism 
was beyond him. His purchase of the Suez Canal shares was an in- 
stinctive response to one of those financial 'opportunities' which had 
tempted him to disaster in his youth - though now he had the credit of 
the British Treasury and the pound sterling to play with. In the long 
run it drew Britain into an 8o-year occupation of Egypt, periodic wars, 
huge military expenditure and political embarrassments which cul- 
minated in Sir Anthony Eden's humiliating venture in 1956; it must 
therefore be counted an unfortunate speculation, the true Disraeli 
touch. He made the Queen, it is true, Empress of India, something which 
appealed strongly to the vulgar streak in her nature (and which her 
grandfather had soberly resisted) ; but this was a piece of Disraelian 
theatricals rather than a carefully considered attempt to reorganise the 
basis of British rule. Disraeli's passionate interest in the Near East 
led him to play a star role at the Congress of Berlin. But this, too, was 


Burdens of empire forced British governments to compromise with subjects of diverse 
creeds, and so undermined the theory of the chosen race. A 1774 engraving attacks 
the Quebec Bill, which gave toleration to Canadian Catholics. Bishops dance with 
their joined hands symbolising a cross: a devil hovers over Lord North's head; he is 
attended by a villainous Scotsman, playing a bagpipe. 

The Lord Protector grants the request of English merchant ships for a naval convey, 
1657. God's Englishman, as Milton called Oliver Cromwell, incarnated the apostolic 
mission the Deity had entrusted to the Offshore Islanders. He never doubted God's 
will, or his duty to enforce it with cannon. 

John Bull's England 

Hogarth painted 'The Roast Beef of Old England' after he had been deported as a 
spy for sketching the gate at Calais: the first, and last, time he left England. A Gallic 
friar drools over prime English sirloin; a starving Scot and a decrepit Irishman 
complete this exercise in English xenophobia. 

Sawney in the Boghouse: anti- 
Scottish (and anti-papal) propa- 
ganda by Gillray. Hatred of the 
Scots, associated both with Stuart 
despotism and (perversely) with 
Hanoverian court-rule, was a 
powerful engine of Whig 

Francophobia shaped English 
foreign policy, with brief inter- 
vals, from the I4th to the I9th 
century. Gillray illustrates om 
of the 'Consequences of a Suc- 
cessful French Invasion'. A 
Buonapartist officer slave-drives 
English farm-labourers: 'M< 
teach de English Republicans tc 

* 3 

Gladstone in 1884 dining at Lady Aberdeen's, 
one of the few great houses where this paladin 
of propriety was still welcome, Rosebery sits 
on her left. Over sixty years Gladstone grad- 
uated from High Toryism to left Liberalism, 
and carried more Acts of Parliament than 
any other man. A. J. Balfour called him 'a 
Tory in -all but essentials'. 

Reformed Commons, painted by Hayter in 
1833, began the slow process of adjusting the 
legal structure to modern industrial society. 
'I have never seen so many bad hats in ray 
life', said the Duke of Wellington; but statis- 
tics show that the Reform Bill brought little 
change in the social composition of the House. 

Soapy Sam' Dr Witberforce, Bishop of Win- 
chesterled the high-minded reactionaries on 
the Episcopal Bench. Victorian bishops voted 
solidly against progress, especially in education 
and women's rights. Sam met a spectacular end 
in 1873: while riding with Lord Granville he 
was thrown from his horse, turned a complete 
somersault, and died instantly. His posture in 
death, wrote Granville, 'was absolutely monu- 

Card vote in progress at the Trades Union Con- 
gress. Some English unions go back to the late 
xyth century, and look it. In their attachment to 
ritual and archaic, self-defeating rules, they form 
the modern equivalent of the i8th century squire- 
archy. Their record of achievement on behalf 
of British workers has been meagre, possibly 


more show than substance; most of the time, said his Foreign Secretary, 
Lord Salisbury, he did not really grasp what was going on, partly 
because he was ill, partly because he did not understand French.* 
In any case, he failed entirely to comprehend Salisbury's scheme to 
follow up the settlement by vigorous British action. Salisbury wanted 
to use British military consuls to create an Indian-style empire on the 
ruins of Turkish Asia or, as he put it, 'to promote that pacific invasion 
of Englishmen which is our principal reliance for the purpose of getting 
power over the country'. This, one presumes, was exactly what Disraeli 
had in mind when he spoke of 'paramount positions* for 'your sons' in 
his Crystal Palace speech. But he took little interest in Salisbury's 
plans, and failed to use his influence with the Treasury to provide the 
money, for lack of which the enterprise foundered - fortunately, no 
doubt. Disraeli was a verbal imperialist, no more. His words, indeed, 
sank into the consciousness of his party; his vision became in time 
Tory orthodoxy, and remained such for 70 or 80 years. But the im- 
perialism of fact arose from quite different causes. 

The decade 1870-80 was a key one in the history of the world, and from 
its tragic events flowed momentous consequences, not least for the 
English. For the first time, the new, interlocking world economy, which 
had been expanded at breathtaking speed for 30 years, suffered a major 
breakdown. The first crisis of modern capitalism had reached its climax 
in the late 18305, when the British economy still entirely dominated 
world trade. Britain saved herself, and so the world, by expanding out 
of crisis through the explosion of railway technology, by creating, and 
then exporting, the matrix of heavy industry based on coal and steel. 
The United States and Germany became great industrial powers. Other 
countries - France, Belgium, Austria, even Russia and Japan - began 
to follow. The modern economy took shape in the middle decades of the 
century, and for a time it seemed possible that this shape would be 
essentially English, with London as the financial pivot, and unrestricted 
free trade, by treaty or unilateral action, as the dynamic of unlimited, 
self-sustaining growth. The world was going England's way: hence the 
almost crazy optimism of the 18503 and i86os. 

But England, as we have seen, was in many respects a grossly in- 
efficient and mismanaged country. The cotton revolution had been 

* 'What with deafness, ignorance of French, and Bismarck's extraordinary mode of 
speech, Beaconsfield has the dimmest idea of what is going on - understands everything 
crossways - and imagines a perpetual conspiracy/ (Salisbury to Lady Salisbury, 23 June 



botched, at huge human sacrifice. The railway revolution was botched, 
too. No one seems to have sat down and thought out a philosophy of 
railway economics. No one planned a national network. The lines were 
simply built, at great speed, often in senseless competition, financed by 
an almost limitless flow of capital from men and women who believed 
all railways were bound to make money. In fact, some made no profits 
at all. In the i86os the average yield settled down to no more than 4 
per cent, and there were a number of spectacular failures. Abroad, a 
few of the lessons of the English railway-expansion were learned, but 
by no means all.* In Europe and the United States, giant engineering 
operations were launched in a spirit of boundless optimism, often on the 
sketchiest financial framework, and without any systematic attempt to 
relate costs to profits. The engineers were in control, eagerly followed by 
a greedy and gullible public. 

The first blow to confidence came in 1866, when the great banking 
house of Overend and Gurney went broke. The City weathered this 
storm, with some difficulty. Then, in 1873, there was a financial panic in 
Vienna, as the result of an orgy of company flotations, riding the crest 
of the German railway mania. It spread rapidly through central Europe. 
Worse, it coincided with a railway boom-and-bust in the United 
States. By 1876 the slump had become general. Two years later, the 
impregnable City of Glasgow Bank collapsed. Recoveries were possible, 
and were indeed staged. But the glad confident morning which the 
coal-steel age heralded was gone for good. Panic firecrackers were now 
liable to burst, almost without warning, at any of the great financial 
centres, with unpredictable effects throughout the world. The collapse 
of a great Paris bank in 1882 brought a further downturn in the world 
economy: all the indices now showed jagged variations, instead of the 
smooth upward curve which had seemed to men the unassailable certi- 
tude of the modern age. Moreover, these recurrent panics not merely 
robbed the well-to-do and the middle-class investor: they brought 
vast factories to a standstill, turned thousands on to the streets, pro- 
voked riots and demonstrations and exerted entirely new pressures on 
governments which, whatever their complexion, now had to respond to 
mass public opinion. Liberalism no longer seemed to have all the 

The collapse of the great mid-century boom coincided with a crisis 
in European agriculture, which the new technologies themselves 
provoked. By throwing open the ports in 1846, Peel had stimulated 

* The high price paid for land, and legal expenses, made the cost per mile of line in 
England and Wales three times as high as in Prussia, and five times as high as in the 
United States; E.J. Hobsbawm : Industry and Empire (London, 1968). 



agricultural growth throughout the Continent. English farmers and 
landlords had responded as eagerly as anyone: there had been heavy 
investment, encouraged by the high and rising price of land, and a rapid 
increase in agricultural productivity. Throughout Europe, free trade 
was seen to be working: cheap food meant an improved diet and higher 
consumption for populations which were themselves expanding fast, 
thus in turn raising the demand for agricultural products. All the 
farmers of Europe were producing, and selling, more, at prices which 
the industrial explosion kept buoyant. But the cycle of growth could 
endure only so long as geography protected Europe from the full effects 
of freedom. By the 18403, the Americans were opening up the great 
wheatfields of the mid- west. Shortage of labour led American farmers to 
demand machines; American industry and technology supplied them; 
the rise in American food-production was phenomenal, and the cost 
began to fall with unprecedented speed. The railways followed the farms 
as fast as the track could be laid, which was very fast indeed. To 
stimulate development and settlement, the railway companies trans- 
ported the grain to Chicago at cost price. The new steamships brought it 
to Europe at rates which fell steadily. In the 18505, even in the i86os, it 
was not yet profitable to bring American food in bulk across the Atlantic. 
But by 1873 to ship a ton of grain from Chicago to Liverpool cost only 
3*35- Ten years later it wasi-2 and still falling. Technology was catching 
up with free trade, and revealing the tragic distortions of a world economy 
run on pure liberal principles. 

Throughout Europe, the American grain invasion terrified every 
farmer serving markets within reach of the railways. In England, the 
effect was catastrophic, for the arrival of cheap American food coin- 
cided with five consecutive wet summers, culminating in 1879, the worst 
in the memory of the oldest rustic. In the past, bad weather had brought 
its compensation in high prices: but now they fell rapidly. From the 
decade beginning in 1877, English wheat dropped from 56 shillings a 
quarter to 31 shillings, and farming incomes were cut by up to 75 per 
cent. On the Continent, there was similar distress, followed by vigorous 
government intervention. Unlike England, Continental countries had 
millions of landowning and clamorous peasants ; they also had conscript 
armies, which the peasants' sons manned. There could be no question 
of permitting clearances, and driving the peasants into emigration, as 
had already happened in Scotland and Ireland. As the German ruling 
class put it : 'Agriculture must provide our soldiers, and industry must 
pay for them/ It was a view Continental ministers and parliaments 
took to be axiomatic (indeed, it is still the principle on which the 
European Common Market is based). There was an ominous rattling 



throughout the Continent as the tariff shutters went up. By 1880, free 
trade as a world system was dead. The industrialist?, alarmed by the end 
of cheap food for their workers, and seeing governments bend to the 
pressure of the farming interests, sent up their own yelps of fear ; and 
they, in turn, got tariffs on imported manufactures. This, of course, 
angered the Americans: they had never really abandoned tariffs, and 
their system of government was peculiarly susceptible to protectionist 
demands from powerful lobbies. In 1890 they erected the McKinley 
tariff structure, and this provoked further Continental retaliation. 

The rapid retreat from free trade left Britain isolated on a lonely 
sandbank. The immense conservatism of the English, their unwillingness 
to contemplate radical change without decades of investigation, the 
huge built-in barriers to reform which existed at every level of the 
political system, united to inhibit any sharp response. It had taken 
more than half a century for Adam Smith's doctrines to win acceptance 
and implementation. By 1875, however, they were the supreme ortho- 
doxy. Free trade was traditional, had existed (in spirit if not in fact) 
since time immemorial, was almost a supernumerary article in Magna 
Carta. It was what England was all about. Abandon free trade, merely 
because some frightened foreign governments had lost faith in it 1 One 
might . as well propose to abolish the monarchy, or the established 
Church, or the public schools, or even the navy. No leading politician 
of either party was prepared even to contemplate such a proposal. 
The depression of the 18705 exposed the English public mind at its 
worst : drugged by a dogma which had once enshrined empirical truth. 

It also exposed Disraeli as an ageing conjurer who had run out of 
tricks. It should have been the culmination of a career of remarkable 
prescience. He might have told Parliament : 'This is what I predicted in 
1846. The catastrophe I foresaw was delayed, but it is now upon us. 
We must act fast/ In fact he did nothing of the kind. Indeed, he did 
nothing at all. Perhaps he felt himself too old to fight the consensus 
again. Perhaps he was not fully aware of what was happening. He noted 
dolefully in 1878 that many great aristocratic London houses were not 
being opened for the season. His letters reflect the grumbles of his old 
friend the Duke of Rutland, and the ravages of his own estate in Buck- 
inghamshire. But he does not seem to have realised that, by failing to 
act, he was murdering the agricultural interest he had once championed. 
He had no ideas, and no policy. He told the Lords in December 1878 : 

Her Majesty's Government are not prepared - 1 do not suppose any Govern- 
ment would be prepared - with any measures which would attempt to 
alleviate the extensive distress which now prevails. 



As for the future, like Mr Micawber, he vaguely saw 

. . . symptoms of amelioration and general amendment which must in time - 
and perhaps sooner than the country is prepared for - bring about those 
advantageous results which, after periods of suffering, we have before experi- 

This philosophy of impotence was, indeed, the general view. As one 
Liverpool Tory MP put it: 

No one can see clearly when 'the good times will come again'. But that they 
will come, 'ere long, is just as certain as that the light of day follows the dark- 
ness of night. Prosperity and adversity move in cycles ; and the one is simply 
the reflex of the other, and has nothing to do with politics. 

To put it bluntly: the English political nation abdicated during this 
key decade. When a tiny group of protectionists, early in 1880, called 
for a Select Committee to investigate 'the one-sided so-called Free 
Trade', very few MPs bothered even to attend the debate. The Govern- 
ment spokesman remarked fatuously that 'one-sided Free Trade was 
better than no Free Trade at all', and the motion was lost by 75 to 6. 
Why did the English landed class, which had defended itself so 
cunningly through the centuries, which was still so powerful, and indeed 
had its hands on aU the levers of government, accept such a devastating 
blow almost without protest? The episode is a complete mystery.* 
But the facts are clear enough. In the mid-nineteenth century the aris- 
tocracy had practised high fanning, on a massive scale, for the first 
time since the Black Death. All that now came to an end. England's 
rulers had watched with indifference the plight of the hand-loom 
weavers and the Irish peasantry; now they stood idly by while their 
own homelands, their own dependants and kith and kin were devastated 
by blind economic forces. Over a quarter of the area under wheat - 
more than a million acres - went out of production. Estates were sold 
off or consolidated. Upper-class capital drifted into the City, industry, 
mining, or migrated. Nearly 100,000 labourers were driven off the land ; 

* Even the spokesman of the agricultural interest, Henry ('The Squire') Chaplin, 
admitted that the free trade issue, 'whether for good or evil, was settled during the last 
generation with the deliberate sanction and approval of the nation*. The young A. J. Bal- 
four, while stating that the case for a duty on bounty-supported foreign sugar was 
obvious, added: 'Of course I know well enough that there are unanswerable reasons, 
administrative and political, which make the imposition of such a duty perfectly out of 
the question/ See Paul Smith : Disraelian Conservatism and Social Reform (London, 1967). 
Of course there were no 'unanswerable reasons', merely prejudice against change. The 
agricultural depression undermined the self-confidence of the landed gentry. Mark 
Girouard: The Victorian Country House (Oxford 1971) prints a graph showing the number 
of large country houses being built during the period 1835-90: it rises steeply until the 
mid-i87os, then falls away, never to recover. 



in the 18703 alone, emigration topped one million. Throughout recorded 
history, England had always been an advanced agricultural country, 
with high rates of productivity and a genius for 'improvements'. The 
mid-century had seen spectacular achievements in this field, and had 
been marked by a sharp improvement in agricultural wages and rural 
incomes generally. Now, all progress on the land was halted, or even 
reversed. Productivity, investment, standards of farming fell. Britain 
produced 75 per cent of her wheat in the i86os, less than 35 per cent by 
the 18903. As the volume of food imports rose, so the burden on the 
balance of payments increased. The great agricultural counties acquired 
an air of seediness, even of despair. The true poet of the age was not the 
strident Kipling but Thomas Hardy, who caught the sad, autumnal 
note of the betrayed countryside : 

The land's sharp features seem'd to be 

The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 

The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 

Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 

Seem'd fervourless as I. 

In this poem, The Darkling Thrush', Hardy fancied the bird had 
'some blessed Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware'. But hope was 
not restored for many long decades. By 1913, a third of the land under 
cereal, some 3 million acres, had gone out of cultivation ; by 1932 it was 
less than half the 1872 figure. Until 1914 most of the big landowners 
tried to hold on to their property, for social reasons; but after the war- 
time boom temporarily raised profits, they sold out to their tenants. 
Over a quarter of the land of England changed hands, the biggest trans- 
fer of ownership since the Norman Conquest. The landless peer became 
the norm, the squire a rarity. Between the wars, English agriculture 
reached its historic nadir: the land of idle acres. The war against Nazi 
Germany rescued it from virtual oblivion; but it was the post-war 
Labour governments, by extending and improving the wartime system 
of government intervention through cooperative boards and subsidies, 
which placed British agriculture once more on a stable foundation. The 
rebirth was as rapid and spectacular as the fall. By 1971 British agri- 
culture was again the most productive and efficient in the world, the 
most highly mechanised and scientific, with an unparalleled record in 
experimentation and research. It was also highly profitable, and brought 
rich returns to those landowners who had held on to, or bought their 
way back into, the land. Thus, by a characteristic English paradox, the 



representatives of the industrial workers put the rural elite back on its 
pedestal.* But, of course, the pedestal was now purely functional: 
agriculture had simply become an efficient industry. It had ceased to be 
the underpinning of English society. 

The events of the 18705 dealt a devastating blow to the English agri- 
cultural community, undermining a sector of the economy which had 
hitherto been highly efficient. But they also added to the problems of 
British industry, which was already exhibiting many sinister features of 
backwardness. Ancient and inefficient plant, a low rate of investment, 
outmoded ideas, dogmatic and complacent management, lack of interest 
in new technologies, or refinements of old ones, the defensive conser- 
vatism of the work-force expressed in restrictive practices - all these 
characteristics were already apparent to shrewd observers, not least 
Britain's chief competitors, the United States and Germany. American 
industrialists, responding to the challenges of an immense continent, 
thought in terms of bigger and bigger capitalist units, whose very size 
made possible the investment of vast sums in research and development, 
and the recruitment of industrial scientists and engineers which 
America's forward-looking universities produced in growing quantities. 
In Germany, too, heavy industry rapidly consolidated itself in vast 
combines, linked to banks which supplied a constant supply of finance 
for investment in new equipment. The later a power industrialised, the 
more likely it was to achieve economies of scale. In Germany, and still 
more in Russia and Japan, the State intervened to force the pace of 
industrial growth, to underwrite credit, and impose rationalisation. 
American industry was highly organised to exploit the resources of the 
State through Congressional lobbies. In other industrialising countries, 
the State was a forceful and aggressive partner. Only in Britain did 
government leave industry entirely to its own devices and uphold sternly 
the liberal consensus that trade and industry 'had nothing to do with 
politics 1 . The structure of British industry reflected its pace-setting 
origins: a multitude of small or medium firms, highly specialised and 
provincial in outlook, usually controlled by a single family, adminis- 
tered almost like landed estates and handed down from generation to 

* The success of leading landed families in retaining their position^ and indeed increas- 
ing their wealth, is well illustrated by a table comparing the holdings of 79 families in 1967 
with their holdings in 1873, published by Roy Perrott: The Aristocrats (London, 1968), 
pp. 151-6. Some of these families are vastly more wealthy than in Queen Victoria's day. 
The Duke of Bedford's 30 London acres were worth (1967) 'at least 20 millions' ; the 
Duke of Westminster (Grosvenor Estates) owned 300 London acres, presumably worth in 
the region of 200 million. 



generation. Although London was the biggest capital market in the 
world, British investors played only a tiny role in the financing of 
British industry, chiefly because the openings did not exist. Very few 
firms went public. Even in 1914, over 80 per cent of British industrial 
firms were still privately owned. British money went elsewhere, notably 
into the ambitious investment plans of Britain's industrial competitors. 
By the i88os, Britain had ceased to be the leading industrial power, 
trailing behind America and Germany, and with new challengers 
coming up fast. The collapse of British agriculture meant a steady 
increase in the volume of food Britain had to import, and a correspond- 
ing need to export more manufactured goods. But this was now be- 
coming difficult, as British exporters came up against foreign salesmen 
in more and more markets which had once been the exclusive property 
of 'the workshop of the world'. There was a growing volume of com- 
plaints about the price and quality of British goods, poor delivery 
dates, and the complacency and indifference of British salesmen in the 
face of highly organised and determined competition. The supposed 
excellence of British workmanship, enshrined in tradition by the Great 
Exhibition of 1851, was already regarded with cynicism in some 
quarters. In May 1887, a new class of 24 British torpedo boats went on 
a trial cruise. By the end of the first day, eight had been disabled. 
Engines broke down, crank-brasses were fused, wire cables parted, 
the top of a feed-pump blew off, main valves leaked, propeller blades 
snapped; in one ship, to quote the official report, 'the boiler furnace 
crown came down, the engine-room and stoke-hole staff were scalded, 
and three men subsequently died'. There were ten delays or accidents 
from defective steering-gear, one collision, one grounding on the rocks. 
An American reporter, George W. Smalley, sneered in the New York 

And how do you suppose the English, who have a turn for philosophy, 
console themselves? Why, that bad as they are, their rivals are probably 
worse. Defective iron, brittle steel, bad workmanship, imperfect designs - all 
these exist in the English Navy. Let us hope they exist among our neighbours, 
too, responds the indomitable Briton. Does he think they exist with the Ger- 
mans, for example ? The arithmetical statement of this torpedo expedition is 
simple indeed. There were in all, and during rather less than a fortnight, 27 
accidents to 19 boats. 

There was an even more sobering story from New Zealand, one of many 
that could be quoted. In 1883, New Zealand ordered 20 locomotives 
from Britain. At the end of 18 months, only two had been delivered. 
In despair, the New Zealanders switched the order to a firm in Phtta- 



delphia which completed deliveries in less than four months; each 
engine cost 400 less than its British counterpart. 

The cost-advantage of Britain's competitors slowly became decisive 
in many fields. Between 1883 and 1910, German and US steel prices 
fell by 20 and 14 per cent respectively, while British prices rose by a 
third. The explanation lay in size and technology. As Andrew Carnegie 
told British steelmasters in the iSgos: 'Most British equipment is in 
use 20 years after it should have been scrapped. It is because you keep 
this used-up machinery that the US is making you a back number/ 
But there were other factors in Britain's shrinking share of export 
markets, all widely commented on at the time: lack of salesmanship, 
and especially of trained salesmen ; goods not marked in kilos and metres ; 
brochures sent out only in English ; the failure of British sales staff to 
speak any language but English; lack of credit facilities, especially in 
comparison with the Germans. All these weaknesses, so drearily 
familiar to British newspaper readers of the 19605 and 19705, were 
already in evidence nearly a century before. The economic decline of 
Britain has deep roots in the past. 

Once the edge of Britain's industrial thrust had been blunted, other 
conservative factors in British life came into play. The economic distress 
of the 18805 ended the long truce between the working classes and the 
men of property. From this decade we note the first use of such terms as 
'unemployed' (1882), 'unemployable' (1887) and 'unemployment' 
(1888). There was a rebirth of the working-class movement, to some 
extent on a socialist basis, marked by the founding of H. M. Hyndman's 
Social Democratic Federation (1881), and the Fabian Society (1884). 
But the response to the slump, in practical terms, came from the trade 
unions, which fought bitterly and blindly to protect the jobs and 
living-standards of their members. Many of these unions were already 
ancient. Some could trace misty origins back to the seventeenth 
century. They reflected the chaotic structure of British industry, in 
their multiplicity and anomalies, in their fear of change, and in their 
complex and irrational methods of business, using procedures for cal- 
culating wage-rates and defining occupations which went back to the 
late eighteenth century, sometimes beyond. The trade union movement 
was already the House of Lords of the British working-class, waving 
historic banners, defensive in outlook, resisting innovation on principle. 
By the turn of the century, Britain's relative economic decline began to 
inspire a literature of self-reproach, and the blind conservatism of or- 
ganised labour came in for heavy criticism. S. J. Chapman, in Work and 
Wages (1904), noted the willingness of American workers to accept tech- 
nical change, whereas 'an English workman finds it almost impossible 



to imagine that the adoption of labour-saving methods could result 
in higher wages or more employment'. Their memories were long and 
bitter : they still tended to regard new machines as a potential threat ; 
their unions were organised to conserve, not to elevate. When British 
manufacturers introduced new machinery, they often found it impos- 
sible to adjust the piece-rates to the extent needed to pay for it. 

Nevertheless, the critics were unanimous in identifying the conservat- 
ism of British management as the overriding cause of decay.* As F. A. 
McKenzie put it in The American Invaders (1902) : 

If our workmen are slow, the masters are often enough right behind the 
times. In spite of all recent warnings, there is a stolid conservatism about 
their methods which seems irremovable. Even great houses which have the 
name of being most progressive, often enough decline to look into new 

British industry, wrote the German sociologist Veblen in Imperial 
Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915), was burdened with 'the 
restraining dead hand of past achievement*. The result was dolefully 
reflected in the statistics. In coal, American productivity rose by half 
in the period 1880-1914, almost entirely due to the introduction of 
cutting machinery. In Britain, where there seemed to be no shortage 
of labour, it remained virtually static. Even in 1924, less 'than 20 per 
cent of British coal was cut by machine, against 70 per cent in the US. 
There is not much point in quoting other examples - they are too 
numerous, and all emphasise the same trend. By 1914 the only basic 
industry in which Britain was leading in technology was pottery. The 
most spectacular failure was in chemicals, where Britain had once been 
absolutely dominant. Virtually the entire export business was handed 
over to the Germans. By 1913 Britain contributed only n per cent of 
world production, against 34 per cent for the US and 24 per cent for 
Germany. Germany's export trade was now more than twice Britain's, 
and in some areas she had a near-monopoly: 90 per cent of Britain's 
synthetic dyestuffs were now imported from Germany. 

Chemicals was a key case, for there the connection between innova- 
tion, export performance and scientific research could be most clearly 
traced. The failure of British industry was the failure of British manage- 
ment, but this in turn was essentially the failure of British education. 
The sons and grandsons of English industrial pioneers were nurtured in the 
Anglican public schools and universities and taught to despise science. 
British manufacturers not only made little effort to exploit scientific 

* See D.H. Aldcroft: The Entrepreneur and the British Economy, 1870-1914', 
Economic History Review, August 1964. 



education, they often distrusted men with technical degrees. Some of 
the scientists and engineers produced by British universities were 
forced to emigrate : there was a brain-drain even in the 18903. Britain 
had plenty of skilled workmen; she continued to produce theoretical 
scientists of immense distinction and originality. But between these 
two categories there was a fatal inability to find work for applied scien- 
tists. In 1872 a British deputation visiting Germany found that there 
were more students engaged on chemical research in Munich than in all 
the universities and colleges of England. After 1900, in response to 
growing criticism, a group of provincial universities and polytechnics 
were opened in Britain. Even so, in 1914 Germany had 58,000 full-time 
and 16,000 polytechnic students, as against 9,000 and 4,000 in Britain. 
It was not just a question of numbers but of industrial attitudes. E. D. 
Howard, in The Cause and Extent of the Recent Industrial Progress of 
Germany (1907), put it flatly: '. . . one of the most fundamental and 
important causes of the present prosperity of the German nation is 
the close relations which exist in that country between science 
and practical affairs/ S. J. Chapman quoted the director of a German 
steel works as saying: 'We can compete and make profits because of the 
scientific basis of our manufacture and the technical education of our 
workpeople . . . every one of our foremen and managers has had two 
years special education at the cost of the firm - a technical and scientific 

The Americans placed less emphasis on science than the Germans, 
but considerably more on industrial organisation, mass-production, 
standardisation, cost-control and marketing. Around 1900 the modern 
factory system was taking shape, based on thousands of uniform mach- 
ine tools and the production line: this made nonsense of traditional 
British methods, but it embodied the type of industrial thinking in 
which the Americans had been pioneers. As early as 1880, America 
had been producing certain standard machine-tools at half Britain's 
prices. By 1913 her exports in this category were four times as big. 
With the advent of the motor-car, and the third phase of the industrial 
revolution, America was way ahead right from the start. Characteris- 
tically, the British car industry operated in tiny units, to a multiplicity 
of designs, some created for individual customers. By 1913 Britain had 
put nearly 200 different makes of car on the market, more than half of 
them unsuccessfully. In 1914 no British manufacturer had succeeded in 
producing more than one car per man per year; even ten years earlier, 
Henry Ford was turning out 1,700, with a work-force of 300 men. The 
quality of Britain's industrial performance could be measured not 
merely in export sales but in other, and more sinister, ways, notably 



in the naval competition with Germany. Admiral Jellicoe commanded 
the Grand Fleet in 1914 in the sombre knowledge that his battleships 
were in many respects technically inferior to their German counterparts : 
it explains the caution for which he was roundly abused. At Jutland, 
Admiral Beatty watched two of his battle-cruisers blow up and turned 
to. his flag-captain with a bewildered but apt comment on Britain 
during the third phase of the industrial revolution: 'Chatfield, there 
seems to be something wrong with our damn ships today/ 

Of course, the distribution of national effort is not a matter of blind 
chance. To some extent it reflects the conscious choice of a people. As I 
have emphasised before, the English have never taken industry very 
seriously; indeed they have taken their achievements in this field almost 
for granted,and have never systematically sought to reinforce them. 
Industrialists have not, on the whole, been rewarded by English 
society, either with place or privilege. For an industrial nation, they 
have occupied a remarkably inconspicuous place in public affairs. 
Success in business, especially industry, has never been regarded as a 
qualification for high office. Peel based his political career not on his 
father's factories, but on his own inherited wealth and acres. Men like 
Cobden and Bright, who spoke for the manufacturing interest, were 
notable for their lack of business acumen (Cobden left his family penni- 
less). Joseph Chamberlain, the apostle of Birmingham industry, in 
fact sold out his business interests in 1874, before embarking on politics : 
the 120,000 he thus realised gave his public career an essentially 
rentier financial base. An examination of the financial status of British 
twentieth-century prime ministers reveals a curious pattern. Some, 
like Churchill, Eden and Wilson, have made money as writers, using 
their privileged access to State documents. Lloyd George made money 
through honours-skullduggery, and invested it, unsuccessfully, in 
farming. Only one, Macmillan, had a successful business career - 
significantly in publishing, where Britai